Survey Finds College Students Divided Over Free Speech vs. Inclusivity

Survey Finds College Students Divided Over Free Speech vs. Inclusivity

U.S. college students are divided over whether protecting free speech under the First Amendment is more important than promoting a more inclusive society, a report from College Pulse and the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation finds.

Based on an online survey of more than forty-four hundred college students, the report, Free Expression on College Campuses (HTML or PDF, 20 pages), found that 53 percent of respondents believe free speech is more important than promoting an inclusive society, while 46 percent believe inclusivity is more important, with opinions diverging sharply according to gender, race, religion, sexual orientation, and political affiliation. 

Nearly 60 percent of women, 28 percent of men, more than 60 percent of African Americans, and majorities of Jewish students (65 percent), those who are affiliated with Islam, Hinduism, or Buddhism (60 percent), and religiously unaffiliated students (54 percent) said inclusivity is more important. By contrast, at least half of white (58 percent), Asian/Pacific Islander (52 percent), and Latinx students (50 percent), as well as majorities of Mormon (81 percent), white evangelical Protestant (71 percent), white mainline Protestant (64 percent), and Catholic (62 percent) students said protecting free speech is more important. The report also found that 73 percent of gay and lesbian respondents and 69 percent of Democratic respondents said promoting an inclusive society is more important, while majorities of heterosexual (62 percent), Independent (63 percent), and Republican (84 percent) students said protecting free speech is more important.  

Building on previous surveys in 2016 and 2018, the survey found that nearly six in ten college students believe that hate speech — defined as "attacks [on] people based on their race, religion, gender identity, or sexual orientation" — should be protected by the First Amendment, including 74 percent of male respondents, 62 percent of white respondents, and 52 percent of Asians/Pacific Islanders, 52 percent of Latinx, and 64 percent of heterosexual respondents. More than half (53 percent) of women said hate speech should not be protected, as did 51 percent of African Americans, 69 percent of gender-nonbinary students, and 61 percent of gay and lesbian students. 

The report also found that trust in the media continued to decline in 2018, with 14 percent of respondents saying they do not trust the news media to report the news accurately and fairly, up from 11 percent in 2017, and 45 percent saying they don't "much" trust the media to report the news accurately and fairly, up from 39 percent in 2017. White (37 percent) and Republican (24 percent) students were least likely to have "a fair amount" of trust in the news media.

"There is a new class of students on college campuses, increasingly varied in background and ideology, who are grappling with the reach and limits of free speech and what it means in the twenty-first century," said Knight Foundation vice president for learning and communities Sam Gill. "Studying their views is key to understanding the impact that they may have on rights that are fundamental to our democracy."

(Photo credit: GettyImages)

"New Report: College Students Support the First Amendment, but Some Favor Diversity and Inclusion Over Protecting the Extremes of Free Speech." John S. and James L. Knight Foundation Press Release 05/13/2019. "Free Expression on College Campuses." College Pulse and John S. and James L. Knight Foundation Report 05/13/2019.