Though Xavier Becerra, the Joe Biden-appointed U.S. Secretary of Health and Human Services, and Kyle Duncan, the Republican-appointed U.S. Circuit Court judge, come from different political perspectives, they share something in common.
They have both been heckled on college campuses.
A new poll gauging the views of students of college campuses shows a plurality of students support shutting down speakers while a rising share of students supports violence in response to hate speech and a slight majority favor speech codes on campuses.
“Students are more censorious than ever, even as their fear of being canceled remains high. America’s colleges and universities must do a better job supporting free speech if the pursuit of truth is to continue on campus and across the country,” Buckley Institute founder and Executive Director Lauren Noble said in a press release sent to the Deseret News.
The Buckley Institute released the results of its ninth annual national survey of 802 undergraduates at four-year private or public schools in America. Conducted by McLaughlin & Associates, the poll gives a glimpse into what university students think about free speech, speech on campus and some political issues.
Here’s a closer look at the state of free speech on campus.
Free speech and the Constitution
Students’ professed support for the U.S. Constitution is at a high point, especially when it comes to the First Amendment. Yet, at the same time, a majority of students now say they’d like speech codes to regulate speech on campus.
Fifty-seven percent of students overall say the Constitution is “a very important document for our country.” Support is split along partisan lines: 81% of conservatives think it’s important as do 61% of moderates. Liberals are slightly more likely to say the Constitution is outdated (46%) as opposed to saying it’s important (45%).
This means support for the Constitution among college students is at its second highest point since 2019.
A strong majority of students (78%) believe the First Amendment is important and “needs to be followed and respected” and only a small group thinks it is outdated (14%).
An even stronger majority of students (85%) find value in hearing and discussion opinions they disagree with and an equal share of students also think there needs to be better education on “the value of free speech and the diversity of opinion on campus.”
But for the first time in the poll’s nine years, a majority of students (51%) support speech codes that would regulate the speech of students and faculty, while 38% of students oppose these codes. There’s a partisan divide on this issue with the majority of liberal students (54%) favoring speech codes while nearly-half of conservatives oppose them (48%).
Expression in classrooms at campus
Students across the political spectrum feel intimidated by sharing their beliefs and ideas — especially on politics — and a plurality of students say they cannot be close friends with someone if their friend is part of a different political party.
When students were given a list of topics (politics, climate change, etc.) to see what topic they were most uncomfortable talking about, politics (46%) was the most commonly selected followed by race (35%), abortion (31%), gender (30%) and religion (30%). Topics like climate change (12%), Israel (10%), election integrity (10%) and affirmative action (8%) were those with the lowest levels of discomfort.
There was not a major difference among political parties when it came to whether or not students were uncomfortable expressing their ideas on campus. Around 6 in 10 students said they “have often felt intimidated in sharing their ideas, opinions or beliefs in class.”
There was a partisan divide when students were asked if they could be close friends with someone of a different political party “because that person likely harbors opinions they find unacceptable.”
Overall, a plurality (48%) said they could not be. Liberal students (64%) were the most likely to say they couldn’t be close friends with someone with different political opinions while conservative students (64%) were the least likely to say they couldn’t be.
Hate speech and offensive speech on campus
Just under half of students believe it might be justifiable to use physical violence to respond to hate speech or racially charged comments. A plurality of students say it can be appropriate to shout down speakers on campus and also support reporting offensive speech from students to administrators.
When asked if physical violence can be justified to stop a person from “espousing their hateful views,” 45% of students said it could be. A slightly higher share of students (47%) said violence could not be justified. This marks a 15% increase in support of physical violence in response to hateful speech since 2017 when the question was first asked.
Liberal students (54%) were the most likely to agree that violence could be potentially justified while conservatives were the least likely to agree (36%).
For the first time in the poll’s history, a majority of students say it can be appropriate to shout down speakers. This growing trend has elicited debate on whether or not heckling and shouting is a form of protest.
When Duncan was shouted down at Stanford University, a student told the judge, “It’s called protest. It’s under the First Amendment. I thought you knew about the First Amendment.” In the pages of The Los Angeles Times, the executive president of The Foundation for Individual Rights and Expression pushed back against this statement.
“Shouting down speakers is just like any other form of censorship: It’s the few deciding for the many what they can hear. Protesters have every right to engage in peaceful, nondisruptive protest,” Nico Perrino wrote. “But they do not have the right to take over someone else’s event and make it their own.”
In addition to shouting down speakers, support is also growing for reporting other students for political opinions they find offensive.
A slight plurality of students (46%) said they should report their fellow students for perceived offensive speech to school administrators. It’s the first time in the poll’s history a majority of students believe that. Conservative students (66%) disagree with reporting students to administrators while a majority of liberal students (53%) agree.
A majority of students (51%) believe school administrators and professors should prohibit debate of some issues on campus. There isn’t partisan divide on this issue.
Is free speech a growing issue on campus?
Some experts think free speech is a growing concern on campuses, especially when it comes to heckling speakers.
Thirteen universities announced their participation in a free speech campaign last month. The campaign is called the Campus Call for Free Expression and schools like Cornell and Benedict College are participating, according to The Hill.
“It’s critical to our mission as a university to think deeply about freedom of express and the challenges that result from assaults on it, which today come from both ends of the political spectrum,” Cornell University President Martha Pollack told The Hill.
When Becerra was heckled at Whittier College due to his lawsuit against the Trump administration over the rescinding of DACA, Foudation for Individual Rights and Expresssion attorney Adam Steinbaugh wrote “Elected officials shouldn’t be kept from critics, even very loud and obnoxious critics, on or off a college campus. ... But the right to criticize and protest public officials does not encompass a right to intentionally prevent a speaker from addressing an audience in a closed space.”
University of Chicago’s Paul Alivisatos told The Wall Street Journal “free expression in our society is in distress,” not just in universities, but in the world as a whole.
But still, Alivisatos thinks his university can be part of the solution. “The fundamental principles of free expression, to my mind are fundamental and we’re going to be a part of trying to advance it,” he said.
The poll’s other findings
Here’s a look at some of the poll’s other findings:
- Sixty-three percent of students support requiring administrators and faculty to have diversity, equity and inclusion statements “as a condition of employment.”
- Around 60% of students support affirmative action.
- Seventy-three percent of students say “systemic racism is a big problem in society and white people still contribute to it, whether they realize it or not.”
- Nearly half of students (48%) say gender can be fluid and 38% say gender is fixed.
- Fifty-eight percent of students believe their school should require students and faculty to state their preferred pronouns when introducing themselves.
- When it comes to transgender college athletes, 59% of students say they support transgender rights, but believe “this is an issue of fairness” and other athletes are disadvantaged “because there are biological differences between men and women.”
- A plurality of students (37%) would prefer to live under socialism instead of capitalism.
- Forty-nine percent of students say shoplifting and petty theft are victimless crimes while 43% said it’s wrong to not investigate and prosecute these crimes.
- If the presidential primaries were held today, 46.1% of college student Republicans would vote for Donald Trump and 31.6% of college Democrats would vote for Joe Biden.