A majority of Americans oppose laws that regulate college professors’ speech in the classroom

Eli McKown-DawsonSurvey Data Journalism Intern
October 14, 2022, 2:01 PM GMT+0

Free-speech and academic freedom have become increasingly contested topics of debate on college campuses and in state legislatures. Multiple states have passed or considered measures to alter or monitor the tone of public discourse or prevent college professors from discussing certain topics in the classroom

Among Americans overall, a majority (54%) oppose laws that regulate what college professors can discuss in class, and only 19% support such laws, according to a recent YouGov poll. Republicans (30%) are more supportive of these laws than Democrats (19%) and Independents (12%), although more Republicans oppose (43%) than support them. 

However, a significant number of Americans (31%) think that professors have either far or somewhat too much freedom to speak their minds in the classroom. Another 19% think they have somewhat or far too little freedom, and 28% think it is “about right.” Far fewer Americans say college students have too much freedom to speak their minds in the classroom than say the same about professors. One in three (31%) think students' freedom to speak is about right, while only 17% think it is far or somewhat too much, and 26% think it is far or somewhat too little.

Democrats and Independents are more likely than Republicans to think that college students’ freedom to express themselves is about right. The same relationship exists for views on college professors’ freedom to speak their minds. More Republicans (27%) think that students have too much freedom to speak than Democrats (16%) or Independents (13%). Republicans also are more likely to say the opposite: 30% of Republicans think that students have too little freedom, compared to 29% of Independents and 19% of Democrats. Similarly, Republicans (50%) are far more likely to say that professors have too much freedom to express themselves in class than Democrats (21%) or Independents (26%). However, in this case, Republicans are less likely to say professors have too little freedom. 

Most Americans who are content with professors’ level of freedom to speak in the classroom are also content with students’ freedom to do so. Similarly, most who think college professors have too little freedom to speak feel the same about college students. However, a significant number of Americans who say that professors have too much freedom to speak do not say the same about students: 11% of Americans think that professors have too much freedom to speak but think that students have too little. 

There are also differences in these views based on age and education. Older Americans are more likely to oppose laws regulating professors’ speech. Majorities of adults 65 and older (68%) and those between 45 and 64 (60%) oppose such laws. Conversely, 45% of Americans between 30 and 44 and 42% of those between 18 and 29 oppose them. Younger respondents are more likely to say they are unsure, but are also more likely to support laws regulating professors’ speech. 

Similarly, 61% of Americans with a college degree oppose laws regulating professors’ speech, compared to 42% of people with a high school degree or less. The opinions of those with some college education who did not graduate lie between these two groups, with 55% opposing such laws. However, there is little difference in support for professor speech regulation laws across levels of education. Instead, differences in opposition levels are driven by higher levels of uncertainty among less-educated Americans.

The effects of age and education are not driven by the higher likelihood that older Americans and people with less education are Republicans. Even among Democrats and Republicans separately, older and less educated Americans are less likely to support laws regulating professors’ speech.

We also assessed how these views differ among college-educated Americans based on their area of college major: 

— Carl Bialik contributed to this article

See the toplines and crosstabs from this poll:

Methodology: This Daily Agenda survey was conducted by YouGov using a nationally representative sample of 7,556 U.S. adults interviewed online on October 3 - 4, 2022. The samples were weighted to be representative of the U.S. population, based on gender, age, race, education, U.S. census region, and political party.

Image: Getty (skynesher)

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