Image from Knight-Ipsos report "College Student Views on Free Expression and Campus Speech"

A survey of college students across the country shows that a “steadliy declining share of students think free speech rights are secure.”

The Knight Foundation-Ipsos poll was released Tuesday by the Chronicle of Higher Education.

Among its many findings, the survey noted a drop in students who think that free speech rights are either “very secure/secure in this country,” from 73% in 2016, to 59% in 2019, and 47% in 2021.

The drop is largely fueled by a large decrease among Republican students. The decline among Independents was smaller, and there was only a slight decline among Democrats.

There was also growing skepticism among Black students. Only 51% felt the First Amendment “protects people like them,” significantly less than either white or Hispanic students.

At the same time, however, the poll saw 84% of students agreeing that “free speech rights in our democracy” are either extremely or very important, just 3% less than among the general population.

Andrew Koppelman, professor of both law and political science at Northwestern University, tells Evanston Now that “one of the takeaways from the survey is there are quite a lot of people concerned about free speech,” and that, he said, is “good news.”

University campuses have always been a focal point of free speech issues, and controversies.

In the McCarthy era of the 1950s, it was liberals who were often scorned, or not welcomed as speakers on campus. These days, it’s the opposite, as conservative speakers sometimes draw protests or movements to “un-invite” them as speakers.

Koppelman says anti-conservative push “happens now more than it used to” at Northwestern, although, he says this “hasn’t always been the case.”

Despite some instances around the nation, however, of students trying to get a speaker canceled, the survey found that a majority favored “allow[ing] students to be exposed to all types of speech.” Those backing the idea of “protect[ing] students by prohibiting speech they may find offensive or biased” has held steady at about 20% since 2016.

Koppelman says college is the place where free speech must be valued and nurtured. Because there are often conflicting views on issues, students need to realize that freedom of speech is not only protected by law, but also should be protected “by a culture of being able to listen to others and not want to hit somebody” if you don’t like what they say.

The survey also found that nearly two-thirds of students believe that the climate on campus “prevents some people from saying things they believe because others might find it offensive.”

Koppelman notes that college is exactly the place where you should be able to say things to people with whom you disagree, in a civil manner.

“The most fundamental idea in a free society,” he says, “is that you are going to be exposed to ideas you think are worthless and harmful. Those are an invitation to respond articulately. You should accept it.”

Jeff Hirsh joined the Evanston Now reporting team in 2020 after a 40-year award-winning career as a broadcast journalist in Cincinnati, Ohio.

Leave a comment

The goal of our comment policy is to make the comments section a vibrant yet civil space. Treat each other with respect — even the people you disagree with. Whenever possible, provide links to credible documentary evidence to back up your factual claims.