In recent years, discussions around freedom of speech have expanded beyond debates on the limits of the First Amendment and into a broader conversation on the culture of free expression in the U.S. Some argue that Americans should not only have a right to speak their minds, but also a right to speak their minds without fear of being shamed or shunned. Others contend that freedom of speech does not entail freedom from social consequences for your speech.
In a recent YouGov survey, we attempted to distill common beliefs about the country’s culture of speech into brief statements and measured the extent to which Americans agree or disagree with them. While there are drawbacks to agree/disagree-style questions, they are useful for comparing attitudes among different groups – such as Republicans and Democrats.
While most Americans – 64% – agree that Americans are generally free to express their views, we find significant partisan divides on many issues relating to free speech, including what threatens it and what limitations should be applied to it. The vast majority of Americans – including majorities of Republicans and Democrats – agree that part of exercising free speech is having to deal with people who disagree with you. Far fewer – less than half of Republicans and Democrats – agree that limits on the speech of some people can expand free speech for people overall.
Agreeing to disagree
One thing 84% of Americans can agree on is that “part of exercising free speech is having to deal with people who disagree with you.” Only 6% disagreed with this statement. Of all the questions asked, this produced the smallest partisan gap – an equal share of Democrats (89%) and Republicans (90%) say free speech involves disagreement.
Free from consequences
Most Americans (70%) agree that “freedom of speech does not mean freedom from consequences of that speech,” while 14% disagree. Though a majority of all groups we studied agree, there are some divides. Adults 30 and under (56%) are less likely to agree than adults 65 and older (81%). Republicans (60%) are less likely to agree than Democrats (85%).
Biting your tongue
A majority of Americans (61%) agree that “it isn’t always a bad thing when people avoid publicly expressing views that may offend others,” while only 18% disagree. Some groups were more likely to agree with this than others, including Democrats (74%) and Americans 65 and older (72%). Adults under 30 were significantly less likely to agree (48%) and more likely to say they were unsure (34%).
Protecting civil rights
About half of Americans (54%) agree that “we should generally discourage people from expressing views that advocate removing the civil rights of others,” while about a quarter (26%) disagree with this. While all groups we looked at were more likely to agree than disagree that we should discourage people from advocating for the removal of civil rights, fewer Republicans (47%) than Democrats (71%) agreed.
The marketplace of ideas
About half of Americans (52%) agree that “the truth is most likely to emerge when ideas can compete in unregulated public discourse.” A significant portion – 35% – are unsure and only 14% disagree. Americans 65 and older are about twice as likely to agree (62%) as are adults under 30 (34%). Other groups we looked at with relatively high rates of agreement include: Republicans (61%), Americans living in the West (61%), and people in families earning $100,000 or more each year (65%).
Keeping up with the times
Half of Americans (52%) agree that “the norms of socially acceptable speech are changing too quickly to keep up with,” while 26% disagree with this. Republicans (68%) are more likely to say it’s hard to keep up with changing norms than Democrats (41%) are. Americans 45 and older are more likely to say it’s hard to keep up than adults under 45.
Nearly half of Americans (49%) say they “often worry” that a view they express “will be misinterpreted in a negative way,” while 32% say they don’t often worry about this. Of the groups examined, Trump supporters (61%) were the most likely to agree.
Americans are divided on whether “the government poses the biggest threat to speech”: 45% agree it does, while 32% say it doesn’t. Republicans (69%) are more than twice as likely as Democrats (28%) to say the government poses the biggest threat to speech.
Testing the limits
Americans are almost twice as likely to agree (41%) than disagree (22%) that “people who test the limits of free speech by sharing controversial views I disagree with are making a positive contribution to society.” Among the groups analyzed that are most likely to agree with this are Trump supporters (56%), Republicans (54%), and men (46%).
Americans are somewhat more likely to agree (40%) than disagree (31%) that ”what matters is the intent of the person speaking, not how what they say is understood.” Americans 65 and older are evenly divided (39% agree, 39% disagree), while adults under 30 are twice as likely to agree (39%) than disagree (17%).
Limits on some
Almost half of Americans (46%) disagree that “sometimes limiting the speech of a small number of people expands freedom of speech for people overall,” while 28% agree with this. Black Americans (36%) and Democrats (40%) were somewhat more likely to agree than to disagree.
— Carl Bialik contributed to this article
Methodology: This U.S. News survey was conducted by YouGov using a nationally representative sample of 1,000 U.S. adult citizens interviewed online between March 21 - 23, 2022. This sample was weighted according to gender, age, race, and education based on the 2018 American Community Survey, conducted by the U.S. Census Bureau, as well as news interest and 2020 Presidential votes (or non-votes). Respondents were selected from YouGov’s opt-in panel to be representative of all U.S. citizens. The margin of error is approximately 4% for the entire sample.