Students confident First Amendment rights are secure, but nearly half say some campus speech restrictions can be justified, Gallup survey shows

MIAMI—April 4, 2016—U.S. college students are highly confident that First Amendment rights are secure, yet close to half say some campus speech restrictions can be justified, a Gallup survey has found.

The survey, sponsored by the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation and the Newseum Institute, also found 59 percent of students have little or no trust in the media to report the news fairly and accurately. Nonetheless, 70 percent say students should not be able to prevent the press from covering student protests on campus.

This study sought to better understand how U.S. college students interpret their First Amendment rights, and their views of how to balance those rights against other considerations. The Newseum Institute hosted a student conference Saturday on “Free Speech on Campus,” the first in a three-part, Knight-funded program, that will result in a “Guide to Free Speech on Campus” to be published later this year.

Among the key findings:

Students far more positive than U.S. adults about security of First Amendment rights, but black students less confident about the right to assemble

  • U.S. college students are highly confident in the security of each of the five First Amendment rights, particularly freedom of the press (81 percent), freedom to petition the government (76 percent) and freedom of speech (73 percent).

  • While majorities of U.S. adults also believe these rights are secure, their confidence greatly lags behind college students’. This is especially pronounced for freedom of speech (56 percent among U.S. adults vs. 73 percent among college students), freedom of the press (64 percent vs. 81 percent) and freedom to petition the government (58 percent vs. 76 percent).

  • Race is significantly related to perceptions concerning freedom to assemble. Black college students are much less likely than white college students to believe the right of people to assemble peacefully is secure, at 39 percent versus 70 percent, respectively.

Students support free speech and press rights in principle, but a significant minority are willing to entertain restrictions

  • Many more students say colleges should expose students to all types of speech and viewpoints (78 percent) than say colleges should prohibit biased or offensive speech in the furtherance of a positive learning environment (22 percent). They are more likely than U.S. adults (66 percent) to say students should be exposed to all types of speech and viewpoints.

  • There is a perception that campuses are not fully open environments. A slight majority of students, 54 percent, say the climate on campus prevents some people from saying what they believe because others might find it offensive.

  • Students do appear to distinguish controversial views from what they see as hate speech. They believe colleges should be allowed to establish policies restricting language and certain behavior that are intentionally offensive to certain groups, but not expression of political views that may upset or offend members of certain groups.

  • When it comes to a free press, 70 percent of college students and 76 percent of U.S. adults say students should not be able to prevent the press from covering protests on college campuses.

  • But students are divided when evaluating certain specific reasons to curtail press access, with nearly half saying the following reasons are legitimate to do so: The people at the protest or public gathering believe reporters will be biased (49 percent); the people at the protest say they have a right to be left alone (48 percent); and the people at the protest want to tell their own story on the Internet and social media (44 percent).

  • Black and female college students are more likely than other key demographic groups to find each of the reasons compelling enough to deny reporters access to a protest — with solid majorities endorsing each of these reasons.

College students do not trust the press; views mixed on social media

  • The majority of college students, 59 percent, have little or no trust in the press to report the news accurately and fairly.  

  • Views on social media are mixed. On the positive side, at least eight in 10 college students agree that people use social media to effectively express their views and that social media allows people to have control over their story.

  • At the same time, less than half agree that the dialogue that occurs on social media is usually civil, and 74 percent agree it is too easy to say things anonymously in this space.

  • Students are divided on whether social media stifles free expression because people can block those whose views they disagree with or because people are afraid of being attacked online by those who disagree with them.

The findings of this study suggest that, while the core principles of the First Amendment are well-rooted in society, what those rights mean is up for debate in an era of changing media habits, new forms of technology-mediated conversation, and important national debates on race and diversity.

This study includes a sample of U.S. college students, a sample of U.S. adults and a sample of U.S. Muslims. The full questionnaire, topline results, detailed cross-tabulations, data files, and full report with methodology may be found at

About the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation

Knight Foundation supports transformational ideas that promote quality journalism, advance media innovation, engage communities and foster the arts. We believe that democracy thrives when people and communities are informed and engaged.

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About the Newseum Institute

The Newseum Institute, headquartered at the Newseum in Washington, D.C., is dedicated to free expression and the five freedoms of the First Amendment: religion, speech, press, assembly and petition.

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About Gallup

Gallup delivers analytics and advice to help leaders and organizations solve their most pressing problems. Combining more than 80 years of experience with its global reach, Gallup knows more about the attitudes and behaviors of employees, customers, students and citizens than any other organization in the world.

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Anusha Alikhan, Director of Communications, Knight Foundation, [email protected], 786-300-8317