Sunday, October 22, 2017
Catherine Rampell | September 18 | A chilling study shows how hostile college students are toward free speech
Here's the problem with suggesting that upsetting speech warrants "safe spaces," or otherwise conflating mere words with physical assault: If speech is violence, then violence becomes a justifiable response to speech.
Just ask college students. A fifth of undergrads now say it's acceptable to use physical force to silence a speaker who makes "offensive and hurtful statements."
That's one finding from a disturbing new survey of students conducted by John Villasenor, a Brookings Institution senior fellow and University of California at Los Angeles professor.
Many of Villasenor's questions were designed to gauge students' understanding of the First Amendment. Colleges, after all, pay a lot of lip service to "freedom of speech," despite high-profile examples of civil-liberty-squelching on campus.
The survey suggests that this might not be due to hypocrisy so much as a misunderstanding of what the First Amendment actually entails.
For example, when students were asked whether the First Amendment protects "hate speech," 4 in 10 said no. This is, of course, incorrect. Speech promoting hatred -- or at least, speech perceived as promoting hatred -- may be abhorrent, but it is nonetheless constitutionally protected. There were no statistically significant differences in response to this question based on political affiliation.
The most chilling findings, however, involved how students think repugnant speech should be dealt with.
Astonishingly, half said that snuffing out upsetting speech -- rather than, presumably, rebutting or even ignoring it -- would be appropriate.
Democrats were more likely than Republicans to find this response acceptable (62 percent to 39 percent), and men were more likely than women (57 percent to 47 percent). Even so, sizable shares of all groups agreed.
Colleges provide a crucible for America's increasingly strained attitudes toward free discourse. But they are just the canaries in the coal mine.
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