College Students' Views of First Amendment Evolving, Survey Finds

College Students' Views of First Amendment Evolving, Survey Finds

While U.S. college students strongly support the First Amendment, some would favor restrictions on free speech if they were designed to foster respect for diverse perspectives, a report from the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation and Gallup finds.

Based on a survey of more than three thousand college students — including an oversample of two hundred and sixteen students from historically black colleges and universities — conducted in late 2017, the report, Free Expression on Campus: What College Students Think About First Amendment Issues (46 pages, PDF), found that 70 percent of respondents favored an open campus environment that allows all types of speech, down from 78 percent in 2016, while 29 percent favored measures to limit offensive speech, up from 22 percent in 2016. At the same time, 64 percent of respondents said they did not believe the U.S. Constitution should protect hate speech, while 73 percent said they supported policies designed to limit offensive slurs. According to the report, 80 percent of students said the Internet has been responsible for a significant increase in hate speech, with a growing share of students agreeing that social media stifles free expression because too many people block views they disagree with (60 percent, up from 48 percent) or because people are afraid of being attacked or shamed by those who disagree with them (59 percent, up from 49 percent).

Asked which was more important, a diverse and inclusive society or protecting free speech rights, respondents overall were split 53 percent to 46 percent. Women (64 percent), African Americans (68 percent), and Democrats (66 percent) were more likely to choose a diverse and inclusive society, while men (61 percent) and Republicans (69 percent) were more likely to choose freedom of speech rights.

Sponsored by Knight, the American Council on Education, and the Charles Koch and Stanton foundations, the survey also found that, on a year-over-year basis, fewer students saw the five freedoms guaranteed in the First Amendment as secure, with 60 percent of respondents saying freedom of the press was secure, down from 81 percent in 2016 — including a dramatic drop among Democrats (83 percent to 48 percent), compared to only slight declines among Republicans (83 percent to 79 percent) and Independents (71 percent to 68 percent). Similarly, the share of Democrats who saw as secure freedom of speech (59 percent, down from 74 percent), freedom of religion (58 percent, down from 66 percent), freedom of assembly (47 percent, down from 60 percent), and freedom to petition the government (61 percent, down from 75 percent) all fell, while the share of Republican respondents who saw them as secure either rose slightly or held steady.

"The study shows a rapid evolution in student views of the First Amendment in key areas, underscoring a growing pessimism amongst students about the security of First Amendment rights," said Sam Gill, Knight Foundation vice president for communities and impact. "The emerging generation has a new and different view of the role free expression plays in our democracy. What they're saying is, 'Free expression is important, but so is diversity'."