3 takeaways from that free speech survey—and what they mean for colleges

College students value a diverse and inclusive environment—sometimes more than free speech, according to a national survey from Gallup and the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation.

Researchers surveyed 3,014 students between the ages of 18 to 24 at 100 four-year institutions, both public and private. Students were asked about their attitudes towards the First Amendment, diversity, and inclusion. The survey builds upon similar study conducted by Gallup and the Knight Foundation in 2016.

The survey comes after a year of controversial speakers and campus protests nationwide, some of which seemed "reminiscent of a war zone," Jeffery Selingo writes for the Washington Post. Here are the survey's main takeaways on students' shifting views on free speech.

Takeaway 1: Free speech is important, but so is diversity

The majority of respondents value free speech and inclusiveness almost equally, Niraj Chokshi writes for the New York Times. But when respondents were asked to choose between the two, 53% picked diversity and inclusivity, while 46% chose free speech. Respondents who belong to groups historically in positions of power, such as white students and men, favored free speech, whereas nearly two-thirds of women and black students picked diversity, writes Chokshi.

Some respondents don't believe that hate speech deserves First Amendment protection at all, he notes. About 29% of students would limit hate speech to establish a positive environment, a seven-percentage point climb from last year's study, Jeremy Bauer-Wolf writes for Inside Higher Ed.

Students may not support the protection of hate speech because they equate it to bullying, says Erwin Chemerinsky, dean of the University of California, Berkley's law school.

Also see: 3 reasons why you need to talk about student activism now

Takeaway 2: Social media is the new free speech battleground

More than half (61%) of respondents feel that their campus climate deters free speech, writes Chokshi. But for the majority of students, political and social discussions occur online—not on campus, he points out.

However, six in ten students feel that free expression is limited online and only a third feel that online dialogue is civil. Similarly, more than half fear being attacked online for their views, writes Bauer-Wolf.

Students may be "souring on social media," says Brandon Busteed, the executive director of higher education at Gallup. Higher ed leaders and students face the challenge of bringing the dialogue back to campus to create productive conversations, he adds.

Takeaway 3: Free speech isn't the only right at risk

As a whole, students feel less confident about the security of the First Amendment rights. Only 60% feel that the freedom of the press is secure, a 21-percentage point decline from 2016, Chokshi notes. And less than half of respondents believe that that the freedom of assembly is secure, he adds.

Today's college students are taking debates around the First Amendment "to a new level," says Sam Gill, vice president of community and learning at the Knight Foundation. Free speech is an evolving issue, and the current generation of students will lead society's conversations of how free speech should "figure into our democracy," he predicts. Colleges and universities have a "huge opportunity" to prepare students to lead these conversations, Gill argues.

How colleges can prepare for campus protests

Student activism on college campuses is expected to continue—and even intensify. The best tools for addressing student activism—and keeping it from escalating into violence—are communication and preparation, says Liz Brown, a student affairs expert at EAB. Discussing controversial issues with a variety of stakeholders can help campus leaders better understand student concerns.

"When institutions call us about activism, the number one question we get is if we think it is a flash in the pan or something that will continue," says Brown. "Changing demographics on campus and our current political climate suggests that it is something that will continue, and so our recommendation is for leaders to spend the time and to be prepared for it" (Chokshi, New York Times, 3/12; Selingo, Washington Post, 3/12; Bauer-Wolf, Inside Higher Ed, 3/12).

Keep reading: Navigating the new wave of student activism

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