College Students Say Free Speech Has Its Limits

As controversial protests rock campuses nationwide, a new poll reveals nuanced attitudes about the First Amendment.
University of Missouri protesters confront photographer Tim Tai. (Photo: YouTube)
Apr 4, 2016· 2 MIN READ
Culture and education editor Liz Dwyer has written about race, parenting, and social justice for several national publications. She was previously education editor at Good.

Last fall, the football team at the University of Missouri went on strike to protest slow administrative response to incidents of racial harassment on campus, joining other students in a movement that resulted in the resignation of the school’s president.

Although students at the school asserted their right to protest, a viral video of Tim Tai, a student photojournalist, being blocked from documenting what was happening raised concerns over whether free-speech rights on the campus were eroding.

RELATED: Activists Claim Victory After Harvard Drops School Seal With Ties to Slavery

“The First Amendment protects your right to be here and mine,” Tai told the protesters gathered around him. “Forget a law. How about humanity and respect?” replied a student. A few minutes later, professor Melissa Click, now fired, could be seen on the video trying to prohibit another student from recording the incident. “Hey, who wants to help me get this reporter out of here?” Click yells to the protesters.

According to a Gallup survey of college students, released Monday in collaboration with the Knight Foundation and the Newseum Institute, most undergraduates across the United States believe First Amendment rights are secure. At the same time, nearly half think some restrictions on free speech are justified.

“Students do appear to distinguish controversial views from what they see as hate. They believe colleges should be allowed to establish policies restricting language and behavior that are intentionally offensive to certain groups, but not the expression of political views that may upset or offend members of certain groups,” wrote the authors of a report accompanying the survey.

The survey polled a nationally representative sample of 3,000 college students ages 18 to 24 about their attitudes toward the First Amendment. While 78 percent said that “colleges should expose students to all types of speech and viewpoints,” the report’s authors note that 69 percent believe policies against slurs and intentionally offensive language are needed.

That’s comparable to the findings of The American Freshman: National Norms Fall 2015, an annual survey by the Higher Education Research Institute at the University of California, Los Angeles. Roughly 71 percent of respondents to UCLA’s survey agreed that schools should prohibit racist or sexist speech on campus, up from 60 percent in the early 1990s.

RELATED: When It Comes to Protests, Boomers and Gen X Got Nothin’ on Millennials

There’s bad news for students who dress in blackface or as Native Americans at Halloween: Schools should be able to restrict students from wearing costumes that stereotype racial or ethnic groups, said 63 percent of those who participated in Gallup’s poll.

Only 27 percent of students who responded believe a school should be able to restrict students from expressing politically offensive views.

RELATED: Princeton Confronts Woodrow Wilson’s Controversial Legacy

Yet, 54 percent of students think the climate at their school keeps them “from saying what they believe because others might find it offensive,” wrote the poll authors.

As for interactions with journalists, only 42 percent of college students said they have a great deal or a fair amount of trust in the media’s ability to fairly and accurately report the news. But what may prove reassuring to critics of the response to Mizzou student journalists is that 76 percent of respondents said students should not be able to prevent the press from covering student protests on campus.

The survey also asked whether students feel positively about the racial climate on their campuses, and most, including a majority of black students, said they do. “They also report that hurtful or offensive comments are infrequently heard on campus, and they overwhelmingly believe their college’s president values diversity as well as free expression,” according to the report.

However, while 70 percent of white students said their right to peaceably assemble is secure, only 39 percent of black students agreed.