Survey: College students have mixed feelings on campus free speech

A majority say creating an "open learning environment" is more important than a "positive learning environment"

College students want to see a balance between academic freedom, freedom of speech, and freedom from intentionally offensive language, according to a national survey.

The findings are a result of a query aimed at gauging student attitudes toward the First Amendment and media, conducted as a partnership among Gallup, the Newseum Institute, and the Knight Foundation. Researchers surveyed 3,072 four-year college students, ages 18 to 24, via phone in late February through mid-March. 

The survey comes after a year of skirmishes with the press and campus protests nationwide, some of which resulted in resignations of university leaders.

"We thought it was really important to have a much better understanding of how college students think about these issues," says Sam Gill, a VP at the Knight Foundation.


A majority of students said it's more important for school to foster an "open learning environment" than a "positive learning environment," meaning biased and offensive speech may need to be allowed. Seventy percent of black students and large majorities of other subgroups agreed.

Seventy-two percent of respondents said colleges should not be allowed to restrict political views groups find offensive—though while 76% of white students agreed, just 59% of black students did.

However, findings also indicate students see a difference between politically offensive speech and promoting racial stereotypes and slurs. Sixty-nine percent of all students said colleges should be allowed to limit intentionally offensive language, such as slurs. The support level varied by racial group: 79% of black students and 67% of white students agreed.

Related story: Are safe spaces drowning out free speech on campus?

Additionally, 63% of all students said colleges should be able to limit costumes promoting racial or ethnic stereotypes. While 77% of black students supported this, 62% of white respondents did.

Support also varied along racial lines in regard to freedom of assembly: while a full 70% of white students said the right to assemble peacefully is safe, just 39% of black students agreed.

Media relations

While 70% of respondents said students shouldn't be allowed to limit press coverage of campus protests, nearly half of students said it's legitimate to deny press access if student protesters think coverage will be unfair or if protesters assert they have a right to be undisturbed. Fifty-nine percent expressed they had no or little trust the press would report events accurately and fairly (Anderson, "Grade Point," Washington Post, 4/4).

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