Views among college students regarding the First Amendment: Results from a new survey

Counter protesters rally at a cancelled No Marxism in America event in Berkeley, California, U.S. August 27, 2017. REUTERS/Kate Munsch - RC1BDEE0B810

College students’ views of the First Amendment are of profound importance for multiple reasons. First, colleges and universities are places where intellectual debate should flourish. That can only occur if campuses are places where viewpoint diversity is celebrated, and where the First Amendment is honored in practice and not only in theory. Second, what happens on campuses often foreshadows broader societal trends. Today’s college students are tomorrow’s attorneys, teachers, professors, policymakers, legislators, and judges. 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.

College students’ views on the First Amendment are important for another reason as well: Students act as de facto arbiters of free expression on campus. The Supreme Court justices are not standing by at the entrances to public university lecture halls ready to step in if First Amendment rights are curtailed. If a significant percentage of students believe that views they find offensive should be silenced, those views will in fact be silenced.

To explore the critical issue of the First Amendment on college campuses, during the second half of August I conducted a national survey of 1,500 current undergraduate students at U.S. four-year colleges and universities. The survey population was geographically diverse, with respondents from 49 states and the District of Columbia.

A surprisingly large fraction of students believe it is acceptable to act—including resorting to violence—to shut down expression they consider offensive.

I plan to publish a detailed analysis of the results in an academic paper, but given the long time delays associated with academic publishing, and the timeliness of the topic, I believe it is important to get some of the key results out into the public sphere immediately.

The survey results establish with data what has been clear anecdotally to anyone who has been observing campus dynamics in recent years: Freedom of expression is deeply imperiled on U.S. campuses. In fact, despite protestations to the contrary (often with statements like “we fully support the First Amendment, but…), freedom of expression is clearly not, in practice, available on many campuses, including many public campuses that have First Amendment obligations.

Before getting to the specifics of the results, it is helpful to include some brief reminders regarding the scope of the First Amendment in light of some key Supreme Court precedents. The First Amendment is very broad. There are, however, some exceptions. Under the 1969 Brandenburg v. Ohio decision, speech that “is directed to inciting or producing imminent lawless action and is likely to incite or produce such action” is outside First Amendment protection. “True threats” are also unprotected (see the 1969 Watts v. United States decision; see also the 2003 ruling in Virginia v. Black). There are other exceptions as well; for example, obscenity can fall outside the scope of First Amendment protection.

With that as background, here are some of the key survey results:

“Hate speech”

While “hate speech” is odious, as long as it steers clear of well-established exceptions to the First Amendment such as those noted above, it is constitutionally protected. The survey results, however, indicate that many college students believe that hate speech is unprotected.

Here is the question asked in the survey, with results presented in both aggregate form (in the column labeled “all”), as well as by political affiliation, college/university category (public vs. private), and gender.

Does the First Amendment protect “hate speech”?

Political Affiliation Type of College Gender
All Dem Rep Ind Public Private Female Male
Yes 39 39 44 40 38 43 31 51
No 44 41 39 44 44 44 49 38
Don’t know 16 15 17 17 17 13 21 11

(The values in the table identify the responses by percent, weighted for gender. Percentages are rounded to two digits, so in some cases the total will not be exactly 100. For more details regarding the survey see the explanation at the end of this article.)

One of the noteworthy observations from this data is that across all three political affiliations listed in the table, fewer than half of the respondents indicated a belief that hate speech is constitutionally protected. The very significant gender variation in the responses is also noteworthy.

Controversial speakers

One way to examine tolerance to offensive speech is to explore views on what actions students deem permissible to prevent it from occurring. The next two questions are based on the following scenario:

A public university invites a very controversial speaker to an on-campus event. The speaker is known for making offensive and hurtful statements.

The survey included a set of questions considering student views regarding actions aimed at disrupting the speech:

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?

Political Affiliation Type of College Gender
All Dem Rep Ind Public Private Female Male
Agree 51 62 39 45 51 51 47 57
Disagree 49 38 61 55 49 49 53 43

The responses to the above question show a very distinct variation across political affiliation, with 62 percent of Democrats but “only” 39 percent of Republicans agreeing that it was acceptable to shout down the speaker. More generally, I find the numbers in the above table to be highly concerning, because they show that a very significant fraction of students, across all categories, believe it is acceptable to silence (by shouting) a speaker they find offensive. And, it gets worse:

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?

Political Affiliation Type of College Gender
All Dem Rep Ind Public Private Female Male
Agree 19 20 22 16 18 21 10 30
Disagree 81 80 78 84 82 79 90 70

These results are notable for several reasons. First, the fraction of students who view the use of violence as acceptable is extremely high. While percentages in the high teens and 20s are “low” relative to what they could be, it’s important to remember that this question is asking about the acceptability of committing violence in order to silence speech. Any number significantly above zero is concerning. The gender difference in the responses is also notable.

Does the First Amendment require presentation of counterpoints?

Of course, it does not. But, as the responses to a question on this topic illustrate, many students nonetheless believe that, under the First Amendment, presentation of counterpoints to offensive views is legally required in on-campus events. Here is the question and the breakdown of responses:

Consider an event, hosted at a public U.S. university by an on-campus organization, featuring a speaker known for making statements that many students consider to be offensive and hurtful. A student group opposed to the speaker issues a statement saying that, under the First Amendment, the on-campus organization hosting the event is legally required to ensure that the event includes not only the offensive speaker but also a speaker who presents an opposing view. What is your view on the student group’s statement?

Political Affiliation Type of College Gender
All Dem Rep Ind Public Private Female Male
Agree 62 65 62 58 63 60 60 66
Disagree 38 35 38 42 37 40 40 34

Across all of the categories in the table, a majority of students expressed agreement with the assertion that in the scenario presented, compliance with the First Amendment requires offering a counterpoint. This shows an important misunderstanding, since the First Amendment of course involves no such requirement. Many of the respondents appear to be confusing good event design—which under some circumstances can indeed benefit from the presentation of counterpoints—with the completely different issue of what compliance with the First Amendment requires.

What kind of learning environment should colleges foster?

One of the questions in the survey asked students to choose between two types of learning environments (note: this question was also asked in a 2016 survey by Gallup and the Knight Foundation):

If you had to choose one of the options below, which do you think it is more important for colleges to do?

Option 1: 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

Option 2: create an open learning environment where students are exposed to all types of speech and viewpoints, even if it means allowing speech that is offensive or biased against certain groups of people?

Political Affiliation Type of College Gender
All Dem Rep Ind Public Private Female Male
Option 1 53 61 47 45 53 54 52 55
Option 2 47 39 53 55 47 46 48 45

Interestingly (and in my view, discouragingly), across most categories, and in the aggregate, the majority of students appear to prefer an environment in which their institution is expected to create an environment that shelters them from offensive views. The exceptions are among Republicans and Independents, though even in those categories nearly half of the students still expressed a preference for the more sheltered environment.

Some takeaways

As the above results make clear, among many current college students there is a significant divergence between the actual and perceived scope of First Amendment freedoms. More specifically, with respect to the questions explored above, many students have an overly narrow view of the extent of freedom of expression. For example, a very significant percentage of students hold the view that hate speech is unprotected. In addition, a surprisingly large fraction of students believe it is acceptable to act—including resorting to violence—to shut down expression they consider offensive. And a majority of students appear to want an environment that shields them from being exposed to views they might find offensive.

Given these results, what should be done? First, I think that college faculty and administrators have a heightened responsibility to do a better job at fostering freedom of expression on their campuses. Getting this to occur will be challenging. I expect that if college faculty and administrators were asked the questions in this survey, the results would, at least in broad terms, be similar to the student results presented above. That said, I would hope that results such as these can help spur faculty members and university administrators to think about the importance of creating a campus environment in which students are exposed to a broad range of views, including some that students may find disagreeable.

More fundamentally, I think that there is insufficient attention given to the First Amendment, and to constitutional principles generally, in pre-college education. Most middle and high school students are taught, for example, that there is a Bill of Rights. But very few of them receive significant instruction on how key Supreme Court rulings have shaped contemporary interpretations of the First (or other) Amendments.

We don’t need to turn middle and high school students into experts on constitutional law. But we can do a better job of giving them a fuller explanation of the scope of the First Amendment, and the fact that it protects the expression of offensive views. And, I would hope that we can do a better job at convincing current and future college students that the best way to respond to offensive speech is with vigorous debate, or peaceful protest—and not, as many seem to believe, with violence.

Here is some more detailed information regarding the survey: This web survey of 1,500 undergraduate students at U.S. four-year colleges and universities was conducted between August 17 and August 31, 2017. Financial support for the survey was provided by the Charles Koch Foundation to UCLA. I designed the survey questions and then requested that UCLA contract with a vendor for the data collection. I then performed the data analysis, including weighting. The survey results presented here have been weighted with respect to gender to adjust for the reported 57 percent/43 percent gender split among college students; by contrast, 70 percent (1,040 of the 1,500) of the survey respondents identified as female. The percentages in the tables in this article, with the exception of the percentages in the gender-specific (rightmost two) columns of the tables, have been subject to weighting in relation to gender.

Of the 1,500 respondents, 697 identified a Democrats, 261 as Republicans, and 431 as Independents. Another 111 respondents stated “Don’t Know” when asked to state their political affiliation. Of the 1,500 respondents, 1,116 are students at public institutions, and 384 are students at private institutions. This public/private split of 74 percent/36 percent among respondents approximately mirrors the split in the broader undergraduate population.

To the extent that the demographics of the survey respondents (after weighting for gender) are probabilistically representative of the broader U.S. college undergraduate population, it is possible to estimate the margin of error in the tables above. For a confidence level of 95 percent, the margin of error is between approximately 2 percent and 6 percent—the margin of error is smaller for the categories with larger numbers of respondents (such as “All” category in the tables, which has 1,500 respondents), and larger for the categories with smaller numbers of respondents (such as “Republicans”).

The survey was limited to students who indicated that they are U.S. citizens (this is relevant because non-citizens, particularly those who have very recently arrived in the U.S., cannot be expected to have as full an understanding of the First Amendment as U.S. citizens). I would like to thank Kelsey Naughton of the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education (FIRE) for helpful discussions as I was designing this survey.