Over the past several years, many campus speeches have been objected to, shouted down, or even disrupted by violence. Often the speeches were by deliberate provocateurs, but some were by policymakers or accomplished scholars. As a result, countless op-eds, events, and even congressional hearings have debated whether college campuses welcome free expression. A wave of polls has assessed how the American public feels about the issue — with often conflicting results.

For years, social scientists have been exploring public support for civil liberties, and their work can help us understand what people actually believe. To build on this, the Bucknell Institute for Public Policy sponsored a nationally representative survey, conducted in late July and early August by YouGov, in which we asked about campus free speech.

The results are complicated. Yes, Americans generally support free speech on campuses — but sometimes they’re willing to restrict it. How they would restrict it varies by partisan identity. Democrats and Republicans’ caveats about free speech varies depending on who is doing the speaking — and who tells them that free speech is worth supporting.

Americans support free speech in the abstract

When asked to think in general terms, the vast majority of Americans oppose restrictions on campus expression. For example, we asked respondents to choose which of the following two statements best fit their view:

  • “In order to promote intellectual engagement, colleges should never prohibit speech for any reason.”
  • “In order to keep students from feeling unsafe, colleges should have the right to prohibit certain kinds of speech.”

Nearly eight in 10 (78 percent) of respondents with an opinion chose the first option. Belief that colleges should not be able to restrict speech was higher among Republicans, men, older Americans, and the more educated. But majorities of Americans in nearly all demographic groups opposed the idea of limiting speech.

This finding is consistent with what we know about attitudes toward other civil liberties such as the right to protest or hold rallies in public places: Abstract support for such principles is generally quite high.

But they’re willing to restrict certain kinds of speech

We asked the same respondents if they agreed that colleges should be able to restrict speech that is “perceived by some” to be (a) racist; (b) sexist; or (c) makes certain students feel uncomfortable or unsafe.

In each of these three cases, nearly half said that colleges should be allowed to restrict these particular kinds of speech. Majorities of Democrats said that these kinds of speech should be restricted; majorities of Republicans said that it should not.

Does this mean that Republicans are generally more open to allowing all views to be expressed? Not necessarily. We also asked respondents whether universities should be allowed to curtail some speech rights of their faculty, restricting professors from teaching “certain offensive or radical ideas.” Here, the results were almost entirely reversed: Nearly two-thirds of Republicans supported these kinds of restrictions, while more than half of Democrats did not.

In other words, large numbers of people on both sides of the political divide say colleges should not restrict speech for any reason — but simultaneously say they are open to restrictions for a number of specific reasons.

Why the opposite results, depending on how the question is phrased?

Most citizens do not have strongly held opinions on specific political issues. When asked to consider such issues by discussion partners, pollsters or in the ballot box, they often form opinions on the fly, depending on what happens to be on their minds at the time. Abstractly speaking, free speech is generally viewed as good by nearly all; it is protected in the Bill of Rights and seen as central to protecting a free democratic society.

But when presented with specific situations where free expression might conflict with other sincerely held values, the context changes. For Democrats, things like racism and sexism tend to be perceived as more pressing concerns than for Republicans. Given the strong tendency of college faculty to identify as liberal, Republicans generally view professors more negatively than do Democrats. So responses to the specific questions are driven not just by views of abstract principles, but by the views of the people speaking and by the political impact such speech may have.

We’re all partisans, too

In an increasingly polarized political environment, what party leaders say about the issue matters as well. We took advantage of the fact that, in the past two years, Barack Obama (at Howard University) and Mike Pence (at Notre Dame) gave commencement speeches that made broadly similar points about how important it was that students support free expression on their campuses.

We showed respondents a short vignette that summarized the point of these speeches. We then randomized respondents into three groups. One group was told that the vignette described a speech made by Obama; a second that it was made by Pence; and a third that it was made by an unnamed “university president.” We then asked respondents whether they agreed with the statement — whether, in essence, they think colleges should be doing more to protect free speech on campus.

The results are not surprising in today’s political climate. Democrats were far more likely to support free speech rights when told Obama promoted them. Republicans were more likely to support the same idea when told it was coming from Pence. Both groups had essentially similar attitudes when told it came from a university president.

Once again, respondents are considering free speech not just as an abstract principle, but also in response to who advocates for it.

What do these seemingly contradictory responses tell us about the public’s views?

Americans support free expression as an abstract principle. But they also believe that even protected speech can have real costs. Perhaps the public is ambivalent or confused about the issue. But they are also responding to the complex question of campus free speech, where schools must balance two competing goals: promoting free and open exchange, and creating an environment safe for learning and development.

Christopher Ellis is an associate professor of political science at Bucknell University.