College Students See Free Speech, Inclusivity as Equally Important

College Students See Free Speech, Inclusivity as Equally Important

U.S. college students view free speech and inclusivity as equally important to democracy, yet many say these values are often in tension, a report from the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation and Gallup finds. 

Based on a survey of more than three thousand full-time undergraduates conducted in late 2019, The First Amendment on Campus 2020 Report: College Students’ Views of Free Expression (60 pages, PDF) found that 68 percent of respondents viewed the right to free speech as being "extremely important" to democracy, while 69 percent viewed inclusivity as being "extremely important." However, three out of four said diversity and inclusivity come into conflict with free speech rights "frequently" (27 percent) or "occasionally" (49 percent), with African-American students (40 percent) and students attending historically black colleges and universities (HBCUs) (33 percent) more likely to say the two values were "frequently" in conflict.

Conducted in partnership with the Charles Koch Foundation and Stanton Foundation, the survey also found that 81 percent of students supported a campus environment where they are exposed to all types of speech, even if they may find some speech offensive, while 78 percent supported providing safe spaces or areas of campus that are designed to be free from threatening actions, ideas, or conversations. Just over a quarter (26 percent) said colleges should be able to restrict expression of political views, down slightly from 30 percent in 2017, while 78 percent said colleges should be able to restrict the use of racial slurs, up from 73 percent in 2017. Only 19 percent of all respondents said it was more important to protect students by prohibiting certain types of speech than to expose them to all types of speech, even if they may find certain types of speech offensive or biased — but with higher percentages among women (23 percent), African Americans (28 percent), those attending HBCUs (23 percent), and those identifying as Democrats (26 percent).

In addition, the survey found that 38 percent of respondents report having felt uncomfortable because of something said on campus, up from 25 percent in 2017; 59 percent believe free speech rights are secure, down from 73 percent in 2016 and 64 percent in 2017; and 65 percent think free press rights are secure, up slightly from 60 percent in 2017 but down from 81 percent in 2016.

(Photo credit: GettyImages)

"The First Amendment on Campus 2020 Report: College Students’ Views of Free Expression." John S. and James L. Knight Foundation and Gallup Report 05/05/2020. "Campus Speech 2020: New Survey Reveals College Student Views on Free Speech and Inclusivity." John S. and James L. Knight Foundation Press Release 05/05/2020.