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Survey: College students seek balance on free speech and hate speech

Members of a black student protest group at the University of Missouri raise their arms on Nov. 9, 2015, while addressing a crowd following the announcement that the university system president would resign. (AP Photo/Jeff Roberson)

Most college students embrace the ideal of an open learning environment on campus that exposes them to all types of speech and viewpoints, but a large majority also believes that schools should be allowed to restrict slurs and other intentionally offensive language, according to a new national survey.

The survey — released Monday and sponsored by the Knight Foundation and Newseum Institute in partnership with Gallup — sheds light on the complexities of student viewpoints on free speech and other First Amendment issues in a year of significant tumult on campuses nationwide.

Protests last fall at the University of Missouri, Yale University and elsewhere raised questions about whether schools can simultaneously rein in hate speech while protecting free speech and the open flow of ideas in an academic environment.

Can colleges protect free speech while curbing voices of hate?

The survey suggests that students want to strike a balance.

Seventy-eight percent said that it’s more important for colleges to create an “open learning environment,” even if that means allowing speech that is offensive or biased against certain groups of people, than to create a “positive learning environment” for all by prohibiting certain types of speech or expression that are offensive or biased. Large majorities of various subgroups — including 70 percent of black students — endorsed the primacy of an open learning environment.

But the survey also found that students draw a distinction between speech that is politically offensive and expressions that are slurs or promote racial stereotypes:

  • Asked whether colleges should be allowed to restrict political views that are offensive or upsetting to certain groups, 72 percent said no. Seventy-six percent of white students and 59 percent of black students held this view.
  • Overall, 69 percent said colleges should be able to limit the use of slurs and other language that is intentionally offensive to certain groups. Seventy-nine percent of black students and 67 percent of white students endorsed this view.
  • Overall, 63 percent said colleges should be able to restrict wearing of costumes that stereotype certain racial or ethnic groups. A larger share of black students — 77 percent — agreed with this statement, compared to 62 percent of white students.

The telephone survey of 3,072 students, age 18 to 24, at four-year colleges was conducted from Feb. 29 to March 15. The overall sampling error was plus or minus 3 percentage points; for white students it was 4 points, and for black students 9 points. The questions sought to gauge student attitudes about the media and First Amendment freedoms in a year in which questions have been raised about whether reporters should be restricted from covering protests and what the appropriate response should be when the last name of a presidential candidate — “Trump” — is scrawled with chalk on campus walkways.

“We thought it was really important to have a much better understanding of how college students think about these issues,” said Sam Gill, a vice president at the Miami-based Knight Foundation.

The survey found college students are confident in the security of the five First Amendment rights — freedom of the press, freedom to petition the government, freedom of speech, freedom of religion and freedom of assembly. Eighty-one percent said they were confident that freedom of the press is secure, for instance. By contrast, 64 percent of U.S. adults as a whole expressed confidence in the security of freedom of the press.

But there was a sharp racial divide on freedom of assembly — a key issue for student protesters. Thirty-nine percent of black students said they believe the right of people to assemble peacefully is secure, compared to 70 percent of white students.

Among other findings:

  • Fifty-four percent said the climate on campus prevents some people from saying what they believe because others might find it offensive.
  • Seventy percent said students should not be able to prevent the press from covering protests on college campuses.
  • Nearly half saw legitimate reasons to curtail the press. For example, if the people at a protest believe press coverage will be unfair to them, 49 percent of students said that is a legitimate reason to deny press access. Nearly the same share — 48 percent — said it could be legitimate to deny press access if protesters say they have a right to be left alone.
  • In addition, 59 percent of those surveyed said they have little or no trust in the press to report the news accurately and fairly.

Read more

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At Yale, on the front lines of the fight for free speech

Staff writer Susan Svrluga contributed to this report.