Conservative students at the University of California at Berkeley planned “Free Speech Week” in part to protest liberal students' ongoing efforts to silence conservative voices that they believe are harmful to students, conversations and policymaking.
The Berkeley Patriot, a student group, invited Milo Yiannopoulos, who once said “feminism is cancer,” to speak on campus, a decision that was widely denounced by liberals on campus and beyond. Group member Pranav Jandhyala said next week's guests include conservative commentator Ann Coulter, who previously said “I'm a Christian first, and a mean-spirited, bigoted conservative second,” and former White House chief strategist Stephen K. Bannon, who used a homophobic slur to refer to women attending northeastern women's colleges.
Students who disagree with these speakers tried to prevent them from visiting campus. New data from Brookings shows that these Berkeley students calling to shut down speech that they consider offensive are not outliers. What they call “hate speech” is still protected by the First Amendment, but the next generation of political leaders, policymakers and activists may not support that.
In a Brookings survey, college students were asked:
A student group opposed to the speaker disrupts the speech by loudly and repeatedly shouting so that the audience cannot hear the speaker. Do you agree or disagree that the student group’s actions are acceptable?
Most students — 51 percent — agreed that the behavior was acceptable. Democratic students agreed significantly more than conservative students — 62 percent to 38 percent. And male students agreed far more than women — 57 percent to 43 percent.
While the majority of Republican students don't think it's acceptable to shut down the speaker, nearly 4 in 10 — 39 percent — do, and that's not a small number.
And the survey got a bit more interesting when focused on the relationship between physical violence and free speech.
Students were asked:
A student group opposed to the speaker uses violence to prevent the speaker from speaking. Do you agree or disagree that the student group’s actions are acceptable?
About 1 in 5 — 19 percent — students agreed that it was acceptable to respond to words that offend you with physical violence.
The number was 20 percent for Democratic students and 22 percent for Republican students. The overwhelming majority of students think it is unacceptable to use physical violence to silence someone you disagree with, but 30 percent of male college students think it is acceptable.
Students were also asked if it is a college's responsibility to “create a positive learning environment for all students by prohibiting certain speech or expression of viewpoints that are offensive or biased against certain groups of people.”
Most students — 53 percent — said yes.
That number was even higher went controlled for Democrats. Most liberal students — 61 percent — said colleges should create such an environment. And more than a third — 39 percent — of Republican students agreed. Most male students — 55 percent — agreed that certain speech should be prohibited.
There's no data to suggest that millennials want to change the First Amendment. But their lack of support for it when it comes to some ideas could have profound effects on the society that they desire to influence.
“Today’s college students are tomorrow’s attorneys, teachers, professors, policymakers, legislators, and judges,” said John Villasenor, a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution who oversaw the study. “If, for example, a large fraction of college students believe, however incorrectly, that offensive speech is unprotected by the First Amendment, that view will inform the decisions they make as they move into positions of increasing authority later in their careers.”