The Kids Are Alright With Censorship on Campus, Says Poll by Brookings Scholar

Demonstrators at a UC Berkeley protest in April of this year (Kevin Jenco via Wikimedia Commons)

Many are familiar with this quote, often wrongly attributed to Voltaire: “I disapprove of what you say, but I will defend to the death your right to say it.”

According to a new poll of American undergraduates by a Brookings Institution scholar, a lot of millennials might prefer this rewrite: “I disapprove of what you say, and I will do what I have to do to shut you up.”

In the wake of violent clashes this year between right- and left-wing demonstrators at the University of California at Berkeley and the University of Virginia in Charlottesville, John Villasenor, a visiting professor of Electrical Engineering, Public Policy, and Management at the UCLA School of Law and a nonresident senior fellow at the Brookings Institution, conducted a poll on First Amendment issues of 1,500 of current undergraduate students at four-year colleges and institutions in 49 states and the District of Columbia.

Needless to say, what Villasenor found was not a ringing endorsement for free expression on campus. Instead, he found widespread ignorance of what the First Amendment protects, as well as a trend toward silencing speech perceived to be offensive, be it by heckler’s veto or violence.

A whopping 44 percent of those surveyed believe that so-called hate speech is not protected by the First Amendment. (The First Amendment’s does protect “hate speech,” as long as that speech does not incite violence or convey a direct threat.) This mistaken view was slightly more prevalent among Democrats than Republicans and significantly more prevalent among women than men.

Fifty-one percent of the respondents said it is acceptable to shout down a speaker who espouses controversial views. Far more men than women felt this was okay, and significantly more Democrats than Republicans (over 20 percent more) approve of what has been referred to as the “heckler’s veto.”

Nearly 20 percent of those polled agreed that it would be all right for a student group opposed to a controversial speaker to use violence to prevent a that speaker from taking the stage.  This was an opinion held across the board by nearly the same percentage politically, though men were 20 percent more likely to endorse violence in this case than women.

The poll also revealed a deep misunderstanding of what the First Amendment requires. Sixty-two percent believed that the First Amendment obliged a campus organization hosting an offensive speaker to balance the event with a speaker offering an opposing view.  (It does not.) And 53 percent of poll participants said colleges and universities should  create “a positive learning environment for all students” by suppressing views “that are offensive or biased against certain  groups of people.”

Concludes Villasenor: “[M]any students have an overly narrow view of the extent of freedom of expression.”

For this he blames pre-college education on the Bill of Rights and calls upon college administrators and faculty to do a better job explaining the reality of the First Amendment.

The importance of doing so, Villasenor writes, is vital for the future of an open society.

“Today’s college students are tomorrow’s attorneys, teachers, professors, policymakers, legislators, and judges,” he observes. “If, for example, a large fraction of college students believe, however incorrectly, that offensive speech is unprotected by the First Amendment, that view will inform the decisions they make as they move into positions of increasing authority later in their careers.”

Some polling experts have denounced Villasenor’s survey as “junk science,” because its 1,500 respondents were not randomly selected. Rather, the sample was an “opt-in online panel of people who identified as college students,” according to an article critical of the poll in The Guardian.

Interestingly, Villasenor reveals in his analysis that funding for his poll came from the libertarian/conservative Charles Koch Foundation, though he claims he designed the survey questions.

The poll’s flaws notwithstanding, it should be noted that Villasenor’s is not the first survey in recent memory to record hostilityto freedom of expression on American campuses. In December 2015, the Pew Research Center published poll results demonstrating that 40 percent of American millennials believe the government should censor speech that is offensive to minorities. In 2016, the Knight Foundation and the Newseum Institute sponsored a more nuanced poll, garnering mixed results.  That survey concluded that many college students “were comfortable shuttering free speech and impeding a free press under certain circumstances.”

Villasenor’s poll and the larger issues of freedom of speech became fodder for comedian/commentator Bill Maher on his weekly HBO show Real Time with Bill Maher.

Speaking of college-goers’ willingness to employ violence to silence speakers of offensive or hurtful speech, Maher quipped, “Remind me to work out more.”

Comedian Martin  Short, one of Maher’s panelists that evening, attributed the problem to “the breakdown in reading and the increase in Tweeting.” Maher agreed with Short’s assessment, noting that the problem comes from  both the left and the right, and that President Trump is the apotheosis of this sad zeitgeist.

“We seem to be losing the thread, I would say, with some of the bedrock beliefs and institutions that my whole life…I took for granted,” said Maher. “I guess I shouldn’t have.”

Read more about Villasenor’s poll at the link below:

Views among college students regarding the First Amendment: Results from a new survey

About Stephen Lemons

Stephen Lemons is an award-winning investigative journalist with more than 20 years of experience covering everything from government corruption to white-supremacist gangs. In addition to Front Page Confidential, his work has appeared in Phoenix New Times, the Los Angeles Times, Salon.com, and the Southern Poverty Law Center’s Intelligence Report magazine.