An overwhelming majority of American college students say they support the First Amendment, yet more than 4 in 10 think it’s OK to disrupt a speaker on campus.
That’s according to findings released Thursday from the 2018 Buckley Program Survey sponsored by the William F. Buckley Jr. Program at Yale University.
The survey shows that 79 percent of undergraduate students said the First Amendment’s protections for free speech need to be respected and followed, yet 41 percent said it was appropriate to shut down or disrupt a speaker on campus.
The survey also found that one-third of undergraduates justified physical violence to stop a speaker from using so-called “hate speech” or from making racially charged comments.
Jonathan Butcher, a senior policy analyst at The Heritage Foundation’s Center for Education Policy, said that while disturbing, the survey’s results are not surprising.
“These results are similar to the findings from other surveys released earlier this year, and it’s frightening to think that students think it’s OK to disrupt an event or use the ‘heckler’s veto,’” Butcher said.
Large majorities of undergraduate students also support school policies that place limits on speech.
Nearly 6 in 10 college students said their school should forbid speakers from campus who have used “hate speech” in the past. In addition, 62 percent of students said social media companies should censor “hate speech” by deleting users who have engaged in it.
Butcher said public officials bear some of the responsibility for fostering a campus climate friendlier to free speech practices under the First Amendment:
Public college officials and state policymakers need to demonstrate for students that the sort of behavior described here—shouting at someone so they cannot be heard or otherwise preventing them from expressing themselves—won’t be acceptable once students leave campus, and so these actions cannot be accepted now.
Zach Greenberg, an attorney at the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education, an organization that focuses on free speech issues in higher education, agrees that university officials need to do more to create a better environment for the free exchange of ideas.
“FIRE urges universities to clarify that the use of force to silence speech is not an exercise in free speech—it’s censorship,” Greenberg said. “Educational institutions must make clear that drowning out, shouting down, and assaulting those expressing differing opinions is an unacceptable response to offensive speech.”
The Buckley survey also found majorities of students who reported feeling uncomfortable sharing opinions in class that differed from peers and professors.
Fifty-three percent of students said they often felt intimidated about sharing their ideas, opinions, or beliefs in class because they were different from those of their professors. Fifty-four percent said so because their opinions were different from those of their peers.
“These survey results present a troubling, but unsurprising, picture of attitudes toward free speech,” said Buckley Program founder and Executive Director Lauren Noble.
“A majority of students should not feel intimidated in sharing their views in the classroom. It’s also unfortunate that college campuses—which could be leaders in bringing people together around fundamental values—are just as polarized and divided as the rest of America,” she said.
Spencer Brown, spokesman for the Young America’s Foundation, a conservative nonprofit youth outreach organization, said the survey results confirmed what the foundation has been arguing has been happening on college campuses for years.
There is an “institutionalized anti-conservative bias” taking over the country’s academic institutions, he said.
“The finding that more than 50 percent of students are afraid to share ideas that contradict or challenge a professor shows the damage wrought by the left’s decision to abandon colleges as sites of learning,” Brown said.
What’s most troubling is an apparent fundamental misunderstanding of the First Amendment among college students. For 79 percent to believe that the First Amendment ought to be followed and respected is great, but with roughly 40 percent saying it’s appropriate to shut down speech they find disfavorable, shows the First Amendment these students believe in [is] just the left’s version of free speech, not the freedom protected by the U.S. Constitution.
The survey is the program’s fourth annual poll commissioned to study student attitudes on free speech, intellectual diversity, capitalism and socialism, and social media, among other topics.
The survey was conducted by McLaughlin and Associates, a nationally respected polling firm, and questioned a nationally representative population of 800 undergraduate students.