A Nation of Snowflakes

Survey suggests students aren’t the only ones who may have difficulty with free expression on campus. It turns out the public -- across party lines -- is conflicted as well.

November 10, 2017

Numerous incidents on campuses, along with national surveys of students, have led to complaints that college students don't value free expression. Pundits and politicians complain that students are so sensitive that they refuse to engage with ideas that make them uncomfortable. Many of the comments lament what is seen as a problem with the current generation of college students.

But a new survey suggests that the general public may be as conflicted and inconsistent about free expression on campus as students are.

The Bucknell University Institute for Public Policy commissioned YouGov to conduct a survey of the public about campus speech, and responses were analyzed from a nationally representative sample of 1,200. The results were very similar to studies of students: broad support for the idea of free speech on campus, but also willingness to curtail some kinds of protected speech. The results were the same for Democrats and Republicans, but those of differing political views would permit speech on different topics to be restricted.

When asked a general question about free speech, 78 percent agreed that “in order to promote intellectual engagement, colleges should never prohibit speech for any reason.”

But when asked about specific scenarios, that absolute commitment to free speech gets a lot less absolute.

Asked if colleges should be able to restrict speech that is sexist, 55 percent of Democrats agreed, while 35 percent of Republicans and independents agreed. Asked about speech that is "offensive to racial minorities," 62 percent of Democrats agreed, while 31 percent of Republicans and 37 percent of independents agreed.

But asked if colleges should be able to restrict "the teaching of radical ideas," 65 percent of Republicans agreed, while only 41 percent of Democrats and 53 percent of independents agreed.

Chris Ellis, associate professor of political science at Bucknell, was the lead author on the research, which he described on the blog “Monkey Cage.”

In an interview, Ellis said the data suggest that it's unfair to imply that a lack of appreciation of free expression is unique to current college students. "Students are grappling with the complexity of this just as everyone else is," he said. Those who are concerned about support for free expression should consider the entire population, not just students, he said.

Notably, however, Ellis said that older Americans -- those who would have attended colleges in the ’60s -- were slightly more consistent in supporting free speech than were other adults.

Ellis said he hoped the study would lead to more "nuance" in discussions of free speech issues, and talking about real areas of concern without simply bashing the current generation of students.

Even though polls of students have shown their ambivalence about some matters of free speech on campus, Ellis said he thought it was unfair to imply that an entire generation supports things like disrupting speakers when students disagree with them.

Of those who disrupt, he said that "it's a small and loud group of students, but most students are much more willing to engage in different perspectives."

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Scott Jaschik

Scott Jaschik, Editor, is one of the three founders of Inside Higher Ed. With Doug Lederman, he leads the editorial operations of Inside Higher Ed, overseeing news content, opinion pieces, career advice, blogs and other features. Scott is a leading voice on higher education issues, quoted regularly in publications nationwide, and publishing articles on colleges in publications such as The New York Times, The Boston Globe, The Washington Post, Salon, and elsewhere. He has been a judge or screener for the National Magazine Awards, the Online Journalism Awards, the Folio Editorial Excellence Awards, and the Education Writers Association Awards. Scott served as a mentor in the community college fellowship program of the Hechinger Institute on Education and the Media, of Teachers College, Columbia University. He is a member of the board of the Education Writers Association. From 1999-2003, Scott was editor of The Chronicle of Higher Education. Scott grew up in Rochester, N.Y., and graduated from Cornell University in 1985. He lives in Washington.

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