New FIRE Results on Free Speech

The First Amendment to the United States Constitution, which grants all citizens freedom of speech, is one of the core values that this country is built on. Unfortunately, many Americans, particularly college students, have become disillusioned with the First Amendment. Freedom of Speech has become a controversial topic on campuses across the country. Students have been rioting against Conservative guest speakers and demanding safe spaces and protection from ideas with which they do not agree. At the center of the Free Speech dispute is the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education (FIRE), a nonprofit organization dedicated to protecting civil liberties and First Amendment rights in colleges and universities.

FIRE recently published a report called “Speaking Freely: What Students Think about Expression at American Colleges.” The report provides an analysis of a survey FIRE conducting in collaboration with YouGov, an international data analytics firm. 1,250 college students around the United States were asked questions about their opinions on free expression, hate speech, censorship, and guest speakers. Students were also asked about their political opinions and were divided into “liberal” and “conservative” categories to test whether partisan divides were present.

The results of the survey present clear ideological differences regarding Freedom of Speech between liberal and conservative students. 78% of “very liberal” students and only 38% of “very conservative” students supported the withdrawal of guest speaker’s invitation to their college campus. Students who identified as Democratic are 19% more likely than Republican students to agree that speakers should be disinvited given certain circumstances.  However, the two groups of students disagreed on which circumstances would warrant a speaking being disinvited. A larger percentage of “strongly Democratic” students supported disinviting Donald Trump (43%) than a Holocaust denier (41%) or an anti-Semite (35%). The only circumstances where a larger percentage of “strongly Republican” supported disinviting a speaker were if the speaker was a Communist (21%) or “anti-American” (31%).

Another subject with divided results was hate speech. 60% of “very conservative” students and 46% of Republican students think the First Amendment should protect hate speech. Meanwhile, 64% of “very liberal” students and 57% of Democratic students think hate speech should not be protected. Less than a year ago, the Supreme Court unanimously ruled that the First Amendment protected hate speech. Still, 48% of college students do not support Constitutional protections for hate speech.

Self-expression was another major issue that was surveyed. “Very conservative” students were considerably less comfortable than “very liberal” students sharing opinions inside (14%) and outside (21%) of classes. These results suggest that college students are more critical of conservative viewpoints than liberal viewpoints. 50% of students reported self-censoring themselves due to fears that they may offend someone or be politically incorrect.

Overall, the FIRE and YouGov survey results demonstrate a more significant lack of support for Freedom of Speech among liberal and Democratic students, particularly regarding conservative ideas and speakers. Additionally, many students, especially right-wing students, are more afraid to share their views on campus. The survey results show an essential need for colleges to reaffirm their commitment to protecting students’ First Amendment rights and dismantling a culture of censorship and stubbornness.