A lot of news has gone down this past week. As predicted by Spoiler Alerts, President Trump has gotten more reckless on Twitter toward both the NFL and North Korea. The administration announced a new travel ban that will be just as counterproductive as the original travel ban. The GOP’s latest effort to repeal and replace Obamacare is failing, possibly paving the way for the next bloody-minded GOP effort to repeal and replace Obamacare. Oh, and the president’s son-in-law, Jared Kushner, used a private email account to communicate with other administration officials.

Each of these events led to predictable levels of polarization. But one news story managed to unify conservative, centrist and liberal elites to a single conclusion: Today’s college students are the worst.

I am referring to the preliminary findings of a study financed by the Koch Foundation and published by the Brookings Institution. John Villasenor, a professor of electrical engineering and public policy at UCLA, surveyed more than a thousand college students this past August on their attitudes toward the First Amendment. He concluded:

The survey results establish with data what has been clear anecdotally to anyone who has been observing campus dynamics in recent years: Freedom of expression is deeply imperiled on U.S. campuses. In fact, despite protestations to the contrary (often with statements like “we fully support the First Amendment, but…), freedom of expression is clearly not, in practice, available on many campuses, including many public campuses that have First Amendment obligations.

Some highlights from his survey:

  • “Fewer than half of the respondents [44 percent] indicated a belief that hate speech is constitutionally protected.”
  • “62 percent of Democrats but ‘only’ 39 percent of Republicans [agreed] that it was acceptable to shout down the speaker. More generally, I find the numbers in the above table to be highly concerning, because they show that a very significant fraction of students, across all categories, believe it is acceptable to silence (by shouting) a speaker they find offensive.”
  • Close to 20 percent of respondents believed that it would be acceptable for a student group opposed to an offensive speaker to use violence to prevent the speaker from speaking.
  • “The majority of students [53 percent] appear to prefer an environment in which their institution is expected to create an environment that shelters them from offensive views.”

This study got a lot of traction in the mainstream media. My Washington Post colleague Catherine Rampell described the results as “disturbing.” Eliot Cohen described the findings as “scary stuff.” Commentary’s Noah Rothman was more apocalyptic, warning, “America is lurching toward a civic crisis. … Subtly or overtly, the message is the same: Violence is coming.” The Wall Street Journal editorialized that “college students are clueless about free speech.” James Surowiecki bemoaned the fact that, “Young liberals have totally lost the plot when it comes to free speech.” Whether libertarian, centrist or conservative, the basic reaction to this was:

That’s a heckuva consensus you’ve put together, Beltway pundits. I’m just not sure it is either fair or accurate.


The first red flag is the last bullet point about 53 percent of students preferring “a positive learning environment for all students by prohibiting certain speech or expression of viewpoints that are offensive” over “an open learning environment where students are exposed to all types of speech and viewpoints, even if it means allowing speech that is offensive.”


That identical question was asked in a 2016 survey by Gallup, and the results were drastically different. In the Gallup survey, 78 percent of respondents preferred the open learning environment and only 22 percent preferred the positive learning environment. This jibes with another 2016 survey conducted for the Panetta Institute for Public Policy that found 70 percent of students agreed that “the more important priority is protecting freedom of speech, even when it offends some people over making sure people do not feel hurt by offensive speech.”

There are examples of survey responses shifting considerably in light of current events. A fair amount has happened in the year or so that transpired between the 2016 surveys and Villasenor’s. But that is still a radical shift in attitudes.


What could explain it? The Guardian’s Lois Beckett suggests the fault lies with the new survey methodology:

The way the survey results have been presented are “malpractice” and “junk science” and “it should never have appeared in the press”, according to Cliff Zukin, a former president of the American Association of Public Opinion Polling, which sets ethical and transparency standards for polling….
[Villasenor’s] survey was not administered to a randomly selected group of college students nationwide, what statisticians call a “probability sample”. Instead, it was given to an opt-in online panel of people who identified as current college students.
“If it’s not a probability sample, it’s not a sample of anyone, it’s just 1,500 college students who happen to respond,” Zukin said, calling it “junk science”.
“It’s an interesting piece of data,” Michael Traugott, a polling expert at the University of Michigan’s Center for Political Studies, said. “Whether it represents the proportion of all college students who believe this is unknown.”

I talked to Villasenor about these accusations, as well as the stark differences between his findings and Gallup’s. He acknowledged that his survey was opt-in and that “maybe my sample wasn’t as good” as Gallup. As for the differences in the results, Villasenor suggested additional explanations for the discrepancy. The election of Trump was clearly an exogenous shock. The survey was conducted immediately after the violent clashes at Charlottesville; Villasenor hypothesized that respondents conflated “offensive speaker” with “neo-Nazi.” That said, he acknowledged that “it would be improper and egotistical” to ignore the possibility of the survey methodology explaining much of the difference.

These technical questions matter a great deal in interpreting the findings. As for the other questions, I cannot get too worked up by the findings, because they only represent a snapshot. The primary utility of public polling is in observing trend lines and demographic breakdowns. I am disturbed that 20 percent of any sample would justify violence as a legitimate response to an offensive speaker. But I have seen enough surveys to know that you can get 20 percent of a sample to agree with pretty much anything.


There are some prior methodologically sound surveys that should give one pause about whether the current generation of young Americans are as wedded to free speech as their elders. But there are others suggesting that it is the older generation that is rebelling against free speech.


Almost all of these survey results are in agreement in two findings:

  1. Americans are still more dedicate to protecting free speech than other countries;
  2. College-educated citizens are far more likely to defend freedom of speech than less-educated citizens.

The hard-working staff here at Spoiler Alerts has been paying attention to the War on College for years. We have defended the right of college students to say stupid things on campus, and questioned the judgment of those who would lecture today’s youth about their alleged illiberalism. This is not the first campus hysteria that turned out to be wildly exaggerated this month. Nonetheless, the Trump administration looks set to prosecute this war for years.


So let me be candid: Just as I think everyone was too hasty in trumpeting this latest survey, I do not want everyone coming to the opposite conclusion because of this column. Villasenor’s findings warrant some follow-up polling. If his results are substantiated in more rigorous follow-up research, I will be greatly concerned.


But what concerns me far more right now is the eagerness with which columnists seized on these findings as vindicating their preconceived belief that today’s college students are just the worst. One of the common laments of modern pundits is that today’s college kids are snowflakes who rely on feelings more than logic to jump to conclusions. But it is the commentators who are leveling critiques against today’s college students by relying on arguments as well organized as a Berkeley free speech week. They are the ones who failed to look more closely at a result that they so badly wanted to be true.

Given the hysteria that this poll produced, I am far less concerned about today’s students than I am about today’s scolds.