Protesters shout before a speaking engagement by Ben Shapiro on the campus of the University of California Berkeley in Berkeley, Calif., Thursday, Sept. 14, 2017. Media reports such as this spark headlines, but they are not respresentive of how most college students think, writes Dan Kennedy.

Credit: Josh Edelson/AP

The Kids Are All Right: Why Concerns About Free Speech On Campus May Be Overblown

September 27, 2017

Do college students fear the First Amendment? You would think so, based on the results of a survey published last week by the Brookings Institution, which found that the nation’s campuses are a bastion of political correctness whose coddled denizens favor the warmth of safety and like-mindedness over the brisk waters of vigorous, uncomfortable debate.

But as someone who has been teaching college students for a dozen years, the results struck me as entirely at odds with what I hear from the smart, thoughtful young men and women I deal with every day. Last week I put that proposition to the test. I’ll get to that in a bit — but first some background.

The study was led by Brookings and UCLA scholar John Villasenor, who said he surveyed some 1,500 students in 49 states. Certainly if Villasenor’s findings are accurate, then there is plenty of cause for concern. Among other things, he found that a plurality of students (44 percent to 39 percent) wrongly believe that the First Amendment doesn’t protect hate speech; that 51 percent say it is acceptable for students to shout down a speaker “known for making offensive and hurtful statements”; and that 19 percent even think it’s all right to engage in “violence to prevent the speaker from speaking.” Villasenor wrote:

The survey results establish with data what has been clear anecdotally to anyone who has been observing campus dynamics in recent years: Freedom of expression is deeply imperiled on U.S. campuses.

Villasenor’s work created something of a media sensation, playing as it did into stereotypes that today’s generation of students are delicate snowflakes who’d rather walk out on a speaker whose views they disagree with than listen to ideas that challenge their preconceived notions. Washington Post columnist Catherine Rampell put it this way: “Here’s the problem with suggesting that upsetting speech warrants ‘safe spaces,’ or otherwise conflating mere words with physical assault: If speech is violence, then violence becomes a justifiable response to speech.”

And for a public saturated by media reports of campus intolerance directed at controversial right-wing speakers such as Ann Coulter and Milos Yiannopoulos, the findings seem like they must be true. Attorney General Jeff Sessions joined in the pile-on this week, telling an audience at Georgetown University that "freedom of thought and speech on the American campus are under attack." But if you're looking to the Brookings survey for confirmation of such sentiments, you may find that you need to look elsewhere: the methodology is being seriously questioned.

Lois Beckett of The Guardian administered a thorough thrashing to Villasenor, quoting a polling expert that his results amounted to “malpractice” and “junk science” and that “it never should have appeared in the press.” Beckett’s most serious charge was that, rather than polling 1,500 randomly selected students, Villasenor relied on an opt-in online panel of respondents who said they were college students. In other words, the survey was not much different from being urged to visit a political website after a candidates’ debate and registering your opinion as to who won. “If it’s not a probability sample, it’s not a sample of anyone, it’s just 1,500 college students who happen to respond,” the polling expert, Cliff Zukin, told Beckett.

Some of Beckett’s complaints seem petty. For instance, she notes — as Villasenor acknowledges — that the study was funded by the libertarian Charles Koch Foundation. Frankly, though, a reputable organization like Brookings is accustomed to dealing with such funding issues, and it seems unlikely that the malign hand of the Koch brothers reached in to alter the results. (As you may know, David Koch’s service on the WGBH board was the source of some controversy several years ago. He is not currently a member.) Beckett also dismisses Villasenor on the grounds that he is an electrical engineer. But according to his Brookings biography, he appears to be something of a polymath whose academic interests include public policy and law. Still, Villasenor’s use of an opt-in questionnaire rather than a random survey calls his findings into question.

Last week I conducted my own non-scientific survey of the nearly 50 students who are enrolled in my introductory course at Northeastern University on journalism and the news media. About half are journalism majors; the rest are from across the university and are studying in fields such as business, computer science, and, yes, electrical engineering.

We went into some depth. I organized the class into five teams, each of which spent about 20 minutes wrestling with one of the five questions on Villasenor’s survey. That was followed by team presentations and, finally, a show of hands on the five questions.

Now, obviously, asking people to take a stand in full view of their peers is problematic, so I don’t want to make any great claims for the accuracy of my survey. But the findings matched the comments made during class discussion. And they were heartening. Thanks to one well-informed student, they all learned that hate speech is, in fact, protected by the First Amendment. What impressed me was that after hearing that, an overwhelming majority agreed that such speech should be protected.

Only a handful of students thought it was acceptable to shout down a speaker — and they made it clear that they believed as they did because protesters also have First Amendment rights. Not a single student came out in favor of violence. On the question of whether a university must balance controversial speakers with those of opposing views, the consensus was that such balance should emerge in the selection of speakers over time — not that every controversial speaker should be expected to debate an opponent. They also overwhelmingly agreed with the proposition that a university should foster an “open learning environment where students are exposed to all types of speech and viewpoints” (to use the survey’s wording) rather than create “a positive learning environment for all students by prohibiting certain speech or expression of viewpoints.”

Every year my friend and colleague Harvey Silverglate, a leading civil-liberties lawyer, writes a round-up of outrages against free speech at colleges and universities called the “Campus Muzzles.” Free speech is a real issue on many campuses, and I don’t want to assume that Northeastern is an exception.

Neither, though, am I worried about the future of political discourse as the next generation assumes positions of influence and power. The anti-First Amendment forces are a minority. Antifa is real but tiny. My experience is that most college students are smart, tolerant, and eager to hear all points of view — including those that clash with their own beliefs.


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