Free Speech on Campus: A Survey of U.S. College Students and U.S. Adults

Executive Summary

U.S. college students have complex and, in some ways, conflicting views on the rights guaranteed by the First Amendment. On one hand, they are highly confident that First Amendment rights are secure, even more so than the U.S. adult population as a whole. On the other hand, many are also comfortable shuttering free speech and impeding a free press under certain circumstances.

This study sought to better understand how U.S. college students interpret their First Amendment rights, their views of how to balance those rights against other considerations, the impact of their college environment on their views, and the ways in which social media and the press influence expression.

Among the key findings:

Students Far More Positive Than U.S. Adults About Security of First Amendment Rights, but Race a Key Factor for Assembly

  • U.S. college students are highly confident about the security of each of the five First Amendment rights, particularly freedom of the press (81%), freedom to petition the government (76%) and freedom of speech (73%).
  • 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% among U.S. adults vs. 73% among college students), freedom of the press (64% vs. 81%) and freedom to petition the government (58% vs. 76%).
  • Race is significantly related to perceptions concerning freedom of assembly. Non-Hispanic black college students are much less likely than non-Hispanic white college students to believe the right of people to assemble peacefully is secure, at 39% vs. 70%, respectively.
  • Adults are far more likely to perceive a decline in free speech rights, with 40% saying the ability to exercise free speech is weaker today than 20 years ago, compared with 22% of college students saying the same.

Students Support Free Speech and Press Rights in Principle, but Many, Especially Blacks and Women, Are Willing to Entertain Significant Restrictions

  • By 78% to 22%, more students say colleges should expose students to all types of speech and viewpoints than say colleges should prohibit biased or offensive speech in the furtherance of a positive learning environment. They are more likely than U.S. adults (66%) to say this.
  • Students do appear to distinguish controversial views from what they see as hate. They believe colleges should be allowed to establish policies restricting language and behavior that are intentionally offensive to certain groups, but not the expression of political views that may upset or offend members of certain groups.
  • There is a real perception that campuses are not fully open environments. A slight majority of students, 54%, say the climate on their campus prevents some people from saying what they believe because others might find it offensive.
  • When it comes to a free press, 70% of college students and 76% 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%); the people at the protest say they have a right to be left alone (48%); and the people at the protest want to tell their own story on the Internet and social media (44%).
  • Black and female college students are more likely than other key subgroups to find each of the reasons as compelling enough to justify denying reporters access to a protest — with solid majorities endorsing each of these reasons.

College Students Generally Positive About Racial Climate on Campus

  • Nearly three in four students describe the racial climate on their campus as excellent (26%) or good (48%). Only 6% say their campus’ racial climate is poor.
  • Both blacks and whites are mostly positive about the racial climate on their campus, although whites (76%) are more likely than blacks (62%) to rate it positively. Hispanics (75%) and Asians (70%) are also more positive than blacks.
  • Blacks are more than twice as likely as whites to say the racial climate on their campus is poor (13% vs. 5%, respectively).

Students Critical of U.S. for Lack of Religious Accommodation; Adults Divided

  • The majority of college students, 56%, believe the U.S. is not accommodating enough to people who practice different religions, while most U.S. adults believe society is about right (40%). Nearly a quarter of adults believe the U.S. is too accommodating (23%).
  • Forty-four percent of U.S. Muslims say U.S. society is about right in how it accommodates different religions, while 42% say it is not accommodating enough. Another 12% say it is too accommodating.

College Students Do Not Trust the Press; Many Look Elsewhere for News

  • The majority of college students, 59%, have little or no trust in the press to report the news accurately and fairly.
  • Just half of students say they would look to a traditional news organization first to get an accurate picture of what is happening in the U.S. and the world on issues they care about. The rest would seek an alternative news source, including 26% who would consult their social media network and 20% who would go to newer, digital-only news sources such as BuzzFeed, Mic or Huffington Post.
  • Still, nine in 10 college students say a free press is at least as important to democracy today as it was 20 years ago, if not more so.

Social Media Gets Mixed Reviews for Constructive Dialogue; Society at Large Gets Low Marks

  • College students and U.S. adults agree: Americans do not do a good job of seeking out and listening to different views. Only 16% of students and 24% of adults say Americans do a good job of this; 50% and 39%, respectively, say Americans do a poor job.
  • 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% agree that 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.

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