Americans support free speech on college campus...most of the time

October 02, 2017, 3:30 PM GMT+0

Americans think speech should not be constrained, but 51% think offensive costumes should restricted

Americans say they want free and unfettered speech, though they would tolerate some restrictions on what can be said on campus. The latest Economist/YouGov Poll was conducted before Attorney General Jeff Sessions criticized colleges on Tuesday for attacking freedom of speech, but Americans are willing to see universities restrict speech that uses language that is intentionally offensive.

What Americans don’t accept is speech interruptions on campus – and not just through violence but by shouting so that a speaker can’t be heard. Democrats, liberals and conservatives agree on this, though by different margins.

In fact, Americans prioritize exposing students to all types of speech on campuses, even if that speech is biased or offensive, to providing a positive learning environment for all students at the risk of barring some types of speech. Sometimes this type of question generates a politicized response, depending on the speech that respondents think may be restricted. The most recent and most publicized college incidents involve conservative speakers who have been shouted down or have had speeches on campuses canceled. On this question Democrats and Republicans may be on different sides, but liberals and conservatives agree.

Support for freedom of speech has often been affected by what the speech is. In an August Economist/YouGov Poll, Americans were unwilling to allow speeches by neo-Nazis, members of the Ku Klux Klan or ISIS supporters. Most wanted those who favored such positions fired from teaching positions at colleges. The General Social Survey found that while support for speech has risen for some groups since the 1970’s, it hasn’t for others.

But at the same time, people don’t want colleges and universities to be places where hurtful and offensive language is used. In fact, most of those who say colleges should protect freedom of expression also say they should be places where people do not use language that is hurtful and offensive. So Americans are willing to let colleges and universities restrict some speech. Majorities would support restrictions on the use of slurs and language intentionally offensive to some groups, as well as wearing costumes that stereotype groups. But a majority believes there should be no restrictions on the expression of political views that some may find upsetting or offensive.

Once again, there is not a lot of political or ideological or racial division. While the margins vary, all groups come down on the same side of each of these questions.

Read more from this week's Economist/YouGov poll here

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