AAC&U News, April 2018
Facts & Figures

Students and the First Amendment

In 2017, fewer college and university students were confident in the security of the First Amendment than in the year before. A new survey from Gallup and the Knight Foundation provides new insights on college student perceptions of free speech issues including the security of First-Amendment freedoms, on-campus protests such as the shouting down of controversial speakers, and campus policies toward safe spaces, free speech zones, and speech codes.

Since it partnered with the American Association of University Professors to release the seminal 1940 “Statement of Principles on Academic Freedom and Tenure,” AAC&U has provided guidance to campuses responding to controversies and issues of free speech. In her 2017 statement, “Free Expression, Liberal Education, and Inclusive Excellence,” AAC&U President Lynn Pasquerella reaffirmed this commitment: “As members of college and university communities come together and appeal to their institutional values in guiding the determination of whether speech is protected, a commitment to respect for others, free inquiry, and inclusivity must be paramount in maintaining an environment in which the free exchange of ideas can thrive.”

Student Perceptions of First Amendment Rights

  • Overall, fewer students in 2017 than in 2016 felt that all five First Amendment rights are secure or very secure. Freedom of the press saw the biggest drop (from 81 to 60 percent), followed by freedom to petition the government (76 to 67 percent), freedom of speech (73 to 64 percent), freedom to assemble peacefully (66 to 57 percent), and freedom of religion (68 to 64 percent).
  • Republican students were the most likely to believe that these rights are secure. Men were also more likely than women, and whites were more likely than blacks, to say that rights are secure.
  • Students were split about their perceptions of news media. Only 6 percent trust news media “a great deal” to be accurate and fair, while 44 percent trust it “a fair amount,” 39 percent don’t trust it much, and 11 percent don’t trust it at all.

Figure 1.


Is Free Speech or an Inclusive Society More Important?

  • Overall, students think that free speech (89 percent) and “promoting an inclusive society that is welcoming of diverse groups” (83 percent) are either extremely important or very important.
  • However, students disagreed about which was more important. Women were much more likely than men, black students were much more likely than white students, and democrats were much more likely than republicans to think a diverse and inclusive society is more important (see fig. 2).
  • Nearly two-thirds (64 percent) of students think that hate speech should not be protected by the First Amendment. However, 70 percent of students think that it’s more important to have an open learning environment where offensive speech is allowed than to prohibit offensive speech and maintain an inclusive environment.

Figure 2.


Campus Policies and Free Speech

  • Students overwhelmingly support campuses “providing safe spaces, or areas of campus students can go for support if they feel upset or threatened by things they see or hear” (87 percent) and “a free speech zone, a designated area of campus in which protesting or distributing literature is permitted, usually with preapproval” (83 percent).
  • However, students are split about “instituting speech codes, or codes of conduct that restrict offensive or biased speech on campus that would be permitted in society more generally,” with 49 percent in favor of such codes and 51 percent opposing.
  • Students aren’t always aware if these policies exist on their campus. At least 60 percent said they were unsure if their campus has a free speech zone or a speech code, and 32 percent were unsure if they have safe spaces.
  • Most students think that campuses should be able to restrict students from wearing costumes based on racial stereotypes or using offensive language that targets particular students, but few students think that campuses should prohibit students from expressing potentially offensive political viewpoints (see fig. 3).

Figure 3.


The Campus Climate

  • Overall, the number of students who feel that their campus climate prevents some speech because of the possibility of offending others increased by 7 percentage points since 2016.
  • While nearly all students (92 percent) think that liberal students “can freely an openly express their views on their campus,” just 69 percent think that conservative students enjoy this same freedom.
  • A quarter of respondents overall said they felt “uncomfortable because of something that was said on campus about their race, ethnicity or religion, whether or not it was directed at them. Republican students (17 percent) were the least likely to report feeling uncomfortable, while black students (43 percent) and Jewish students (38 percent) were the most likely.

Controversial Speakers and Student Activism on Campus

  • Most students said they have not participated in a protest or demonstration in the past year. However, students were more likely to say they attended protests about diversity and inclusion (26 percent) than protests about free speech (12 percent) or controversial speakers (9 percent).
  • While 72 percent of students oppose canceling on-campus speeches because students disagree with a speaker’s controversial viewpoints, 69 percent approve of canceling speaking engagements if violent protests are likely. However, more than 60 percent were unsure if their campus had canceled any speaking engagements for either reason.
  • 86 percent of students believe it is always or sometimes acceptable to protest or demonstrate against speakers, and 36 percent think it is always or sometimes acceptable to shout them down. Few students think the use of violence is always (1 percent) or sometimes (9 percent) acceptable to protest speakers.
  • Almost all students (94 percent) think that it is always or sometimes acceptable to distribute literature about controversial topics, and two-thirds (67 percent) think it is always or sometimes acceptable to engage “in sit-ins or similar attempts to disrupt operations in campus buildings.” However, 60 percent say that it is never acceptable for institutions to stop news media from covering protests.
  • More students (57 percent) think that “most expression and discussion of political or social ideas among students” at their institution happens via social media, while only 43 percent believe it mostly happens in-person on campus.

Images in this article are included with the permission of Gallup from their report with the Knight Foundation, Free Expression on Campus: What College Students Think About First Amendment Issues.

About AAC&U News

AAC&U News is written and edited by Ben Dedman. If you have questions or comments about the newsletter's contents, please e-mail dedman@aacu.org.


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