Trouble for Free Speech

One of the great blessings of living in the United States is that we enjoy rights that many others around the world do not. Not least among these is the right to express ourselves, to speak our mind, without threat of government sanction.

That right is being severely challenged in our nation today, especially on college campuses, which ought to properly be bastions of free speech and whose hallowed halls ought to ring out with ideas and insights that challenge others, if only to sharpen in others the skills to challenge back those same ideas.

Sadly, that’s not the way many college students think today, and they are too often obliged and enabled by the administrators of their institutions. Rather than face and counter challenging ideas, these students demand to be “protected” from them, as if the mere thought of having to hear or read the ideas of one who thinks differently is an attack on them, or constitutes violence against them or a threat to their safety.

The results of a survey conducted by Brookings, as reported in the article by John Villasenor linked below, are discouraging and alarming. Villasenor’s report bodes ill for our cherished right to free speech, enshrined in the First Amendment, and that bodes ill for our nation, as more and more young people spew aspersions at the notion of free speech and cause me, for one, to doubt their ability to comprehend the damage they do to the foundation of liberty.

When asked if the First Amendment protects “hate speech,” only 4 out of 10 (and that requires rounding up) agree. Yes, more Republicans agree that the First Amendment protects “hate speech,” but even among the party that claims unalloyed devotion to a strict constructionist interpretation of the Constitution, only a minority agree (44%). The majority are split between “No” (39%) and “I don’t know” (17%). So, the simple fact is that a majority of young Republicans are not willing to stand for free speech when that speech is designated as “hate speech.” The numbers, as might be expected, are worse among young Democrats and even Independents. And this, even given that the question asked by the survey doesn’t offer who decided the speech was “hate speech.” The government? The college administration? The group targeted for criticism by the speaker? I find this absolutely amazing! Apparently, a majority of college students of all political stripes are willing to remove the safeguards of the First Amendment from speech designated as “hate speech” by anyone who chooses to designate said speech as “hate speech.” Men are much more likely to say that “hate speech” is protected than are women.

When asked if they agree with the use of non-violent actions, such as shouting or otherwise disrupting or drowning out a speaker so to prevent a controversial speaker from speaking, is allowed, a majority (51%) answer “Yes.” In this case, a solid majority of Republicans and a smaller majority of Independents disagree with such tactics, but Democrats overwhelming agree. Men are more likely than women to disapprove of such tactics.

People of all political parties and both genders agree that violent tactics may not be used to shut down a controversial speaker, but that news is hardly encouraging, for fully 19% of respondents (almost 1 in 5) were willing to employ even violent means to shut down speech, with men being three times more likely than women (30% to 10%).

On the next question, a strong majority of members of all political parties and both genders are under the impression that, when a university sponsors a controversial speaker to address the student body, the First Amendment legally requires them to present a speaker with an opposing view. This is not true, of course. But, the fact that so many believe it is can be the root of a great deal of tension on campuses, if students believe that the First Amendment is being violated by not providing that certain viewpoints be heard.

Finally, the last question asked students what sort of environment colleges and universities ought to be creating for their students:

If you had to choose one of the options below, which do you think it is more important for colleges to do?

Option 1: create a positive learning environment for all students by prohibiting certain speech or expression of viewpoints that are offensive or biased against certain groups of people

Option 2: create an open learning environment where students are exposed to all types of speech and viewpoints, even if it means allowing speech that is offensive or biased against certain groups of people?

A small majority chose “Option 1,” which was also supported by a solid majority of Democrats. A majority of Republicans and Independents chose “Option 2,” but those majorities were not large. Men and women were evenly split among the two options.

All in all, I have to say that the Brookings survey is bad news for advocates of the First Amendment. It will be interesting to see how the thinking of these college students changes over the next ten years (for it will change). I’m optimistic that the realities of the world outside the relative cocoon of a college campus will awaken in these young people a renewed commitment to the First Amendment, when they’re able to see more clearly the consequences of their current attitude toward free speech. Then again, it may be that these young people will demand that laws be changed, policies be adopted, and the freedom of speech be mitigated even more in the future.

The irony is not lost that, in many countries, the right these students exercise to criticize their country’s Constitution and founding principles is not always looked upon benignly.

Be Christ for all. Bring Christ to all. See Christ in all.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s