What college students don’t understand about free speech

Recent protests and contentious debates suggest that free speech is already a divisive campus issue, but students may not necessarily understand how free speech is protected under the Constitution, finds a new study.  

The Brookings Institution administered the nationwide survey to 1,500 undergraduate students at four-year institutions. Respondents were asked questions around their understanding of the First Amendment, reports Catherine Rampell for the Washington Post.

Although college is traditionally seen as a space for free discourse, the survey suggests that students may misunderstand what the First Amendment actually protects.

What respondents got wrong about the First Amendment:

  • Four in ten students say that the First Amendment does not protect "hate speech" (it does); and
  • Six in ten students (mistakenly) believe that public universities are legally required to balance a controversial speaker with someone representing the opposing perspective.

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How respondents think a controversial speaker should be handled:

  • Students who identify as Democrats are more likely than their Republican counterparts to view shouting as an acceptable way to disrupt a controversial speech (62% to 39%), while men were more likely than women (57% to 47%) to approve of this response;
  • About 19% believe that it is acceptable for a student group to use violence to prevent hate speech; and
  • Men were three times as likely as women to approve of violence as a way to silence hate speech (30% to 10%).

Although intolerance for free speech is often pinned to left-leaning students, Rampell points out that both sides of the political spectrum seem open to silencing speech.

According to Liz Rothenberg, a managing director at EAB, student activism on college campuses is expected to continue—and even intensify. And as students gear up to protest, Rampell urges them not to "do something stupid"—even when faced with hate speech (Rampell, Washington Post, 9/22).

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