Latest study from Knight Foundation’s Free Expression Research Series shows students strongly value the right to free expression despite growing unease about the state of campus speech
MIAMI — January 25, 2022 — A new study from the Knight Free Expression (KFX) Research Series shows that most college students in America strongly value free speech and recognize its importance to democracy, even as high-profile incidents continue to fuel debate about allowing problematic speech on campus. However, the percentage of students who say free speech in America is secure today has fallen sharply, along with the share of students of color who feel the First Amendment protects them.
The report — “College Student Views on Free Expression and Campus Speech 2022” — builds on nearly two decades of Knight research into students’ views of free expression, and represents the most authoritative accounting of the state of campus speech available today. Its findings are based on a nationally representative survey of more than 1,000 students, conducted by the public opinion research firm Ipsos.
The results reinforce that college students express strong belief in free speech principles, mirroring recent Knight findings on the views of the broader American public.
- An overwhelming majority of college students (84%) say free speech rights are extremely or very important in our democracy.
- A similar majority of students (83%) believe the First Amendment protects people like them. However, just 5% of Black students feel that the First Amendment protects people like them a great deal, a drop of 20 percentage points since 2019.
- More than half of students (59%) say colleges should allow students to be exposed to all types of speech even if they may find it offensive or biased. Republican students (71%) and white students (65%) are more likely to say this than Independent, (57%), Democrat (55%), Black (47%) or Hispanic (45%) students.
Though they place a high value on free speech principles, college students are increasingly uneasy about the state of campus speech.
- Less than half of students (47%) say speech rights are secure, a share that has fallen every year since this question was first asked in 2016. This includes a drop of 12 percentage points between 2019 and 2021, driven primarily by declines among Republican students.
- A majority of students (65%) agree strongly or somewhat that their campus climate prevents some people from saying things they believe because others might find the remarks offensive. This majority has risen 11 percentage points since 2016.
- Just half of students say they feel comfortable voicing disagreement with their instructor (49%) or peers (52%) in class.
“College campuses are robust environments of change, learning and conversation,” said Alberto Ibargüen, president of Knight Foundation. “If we are to have a vibrant First Amendment, it has to be embraced by succeeding generations. Tracking student reaction and interpretation of media and events produces critical data for anyone who wants to understand where we’re headed as a society.”
The KFX Research Series provides essential insights to help educators, policymakers and private companies understand how Americans’ views of free expression are shifting in an era of great social change. As a Foundation with strong roots in local journalism, free speech and press freedom are central to Knight’s mission of fostering informed and engaged communities.
“Our latest findings reinforce that college students have diverse experiences with speech that are informed by their unique backgrounds,” said Evette Alexander, Knight’s director of Learning and Impact. “To create campuses that serve all students, college leaders must understand those differences and anticipate how students’ perspectives are evolving in a post-2020 world.”
Later this year, Knight will release the next KFX Research Series study with updated data on how American high school students view free expression issues — insights that Knight has collected since 2004.
About the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation
We are social investors who support democracy by funding free expression and journalism, arts and culture in community, research in areas of media and democracy, and in the success of American cities and towns where the Knight brothers once had newspapers. Learn more at kf.org and follow @knightfdn on social media.