Americans tend to pick and choose who should be afforded civil liberties to some degree, a centuries-old issue that has flared up once again after a video of racist chants by University of Oklahoma fraternity brothers went viral. The university's president David Boren last week expelled two students filmed making the racist chants.
The popularity of Boren's actions may be hard to nail down (more on that later), but one fascinating trend in public opinion has been quite clear. Americans have become more supportive of free speech for a variety of controversial groups in recent decades, but this growing acceptance has not extended to racists. This finding comes from the long-running General Social Survey of U.S. adults. Last year the survey found 60 percent saying a "person who believes blacks are genetically inferior" should be allowed to make a speech in their community, similar to the share who said so in 1976 (62 percent).
That absolute number might be surprising - a clear majority are okay with a racist speaking out - but they also contrast with larger and growing shares of the public who support allowing speech from other controversial groups. Some 70 percent support allowing a speech from a person who wants the military to run the country (70 percent), a communist (68 percent), and an anti-religionist (79 percent). The only group where people expressed less support for free speech than racists was "a Muslim clergyman who preaches hatred of the United States" - only 42 percent said this should be allowed. These trends were documented by Tom Smith and Jaesok Son of NORC at the University of Chicago in 2013.
Changing politics as well as attitudes toward sexuality and religion help explain how free speech for some groups has become more tolerable while support for racists have stayed lower. The Cold war is over, fewer people identify with a religious faith than in the 1970s and acceptance of homosexuality has grown rapidly. The stagnation of tolerance for racist speech – while support for speech among other groups has grown -- could indicate that the public is not purely becoming more tolerant of the rights of groups they dislike. Instead, the shifts could reflect greater public agreement with the ideas of gay and lesbian people and those who are less religious.
Reactions to the Oklahoma case could be tough to gauge if past surveys are any guide, perhaps due to the difficulty in balancing between support for free speech in general and a desire to quash racism generally. Two national surveys in 1989 and 1991 found about six in 10 saying college students who use racial slurs or published racist magazines should not be expelled. But a similarly large majority in a 1992 survey by Family Circle favored probation for a Brown University student who yelled racial slurs while drunk. More recently, a 2008 survey by the First Amendment Center found 54 percent disagreeing with the idea that people should be allowed to say things in public that might be offensive to racial groups.
Peyton M. Craighill contributed to this report.
The General Social Survey was conducted by NORC at the University of Chicago using in-person interviews with a random national sample of 2,538 adults from March 31 to Oct. 13, 2014. Results on attitudes toward racists are based on 1,711 interviews and have a margin of sampling error of three percentage points. Data analysis was conducted by The Washington Post.
There are always some people whose ideas are considered bad or dangerous by other people. If [INSERT] wanted to make a speech in your community [INSERT], should he be allowed to speak, or not? Answers: Yes, allowed/Not allowed/Don't know/Refused
a. somebody who is against all churches and religion/against churches and religion
b. a person who believes that Blacks are genetically inferior/claiming that Blacks are inferior
c. admitted Communist/(no additional phrasing)
d. a person who advocates doing away with elections and letting the military run the country/(no additional phrasing)
e. an admitted homosexual/(no additional phrasing)
f. a Muslim clergyman who preaches hatred of the United States/preaching hatred of the United States