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A chilling study shows how hostile college students are toward free speech

Catherine Rampell on

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.

In August, motivated by concerns about the "narrowing window of permissible topics" for discussion on campuses, Villasenor conducted a nationwide survey of 1,500 undergraduate students at four-year colleges. Financial support for the survey was provided by the Charles Koch Foundation, which Villasenor said had no involvement in designing, administering or analyzing the questionnaire; as of this writing, the foundation had also not seen his results.

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. But there were significant differences by gender: Women are more likely than men to believe hate speech is not constitutionally protected (49 percent vs. 38 percent, respectively).

Students were asked whether the First Amendment requires that an offensive speaker at a public university be matched with one with an opposing view. Here, 6 in 10 (mistakenly) said that, yes, the First Amendment requires balance.

The most chilling findings, however, involved how students think repugnant speech should be dealt with.

Villasenor offered a hypothetical that may sound familiar to those who recall recent fracases at California State University at Los Angeles, Middlebury College, Claremont McKenna College and other institutions:

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