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

Catherine Rampell on

Let's say a public university hosts a "very controversial speaker," one "known for making offensive and hurtful statements." Would it be acceptable for a student group to disrupt the speech "by loudly and repeatedly shouting so that the audience cannot hear the speaker"?

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.

It gets even worse.

Respondents were also asked if it would be acceptable for a student group to use violence to prevent that same controversial speaker from talking. Here, 19 percent said yes.

There were no statistically significant differences in response by political party affiliation. Men, however, were three times as likely as women to endorse using physical force to silence controversial views (30 percent of men vs. 10 percent of women).

None of this bodes well for the alt-right's Berkeley Free Speech Week events next week.

Judging from the lineup -- which includes professional troll Milo Yiannopoulos and Pizzagate conspiracy theorist Mike Cernovich -- the apparent goal of this event is not to help students face hard truths or grapple with thoughtful conservative viewpoints. It's to say disgusting things in an attempt to provoke liberals into doing something stupid, surrendering any claim to the moral high ground. If that happens, President Trump's "both sides" comments will ring a little truer, while liberals and colleges are further cemented as whataboutist bogeymen for the right.

In truth, lefties can do more to call out threats to civil liberties perpetrated by their ideological allies. And colleges can do more to promote freer debate. But many of Villasenor's results -- like those from other data sources -- show that the right is also astonishingly open to shutting down speech.

What's more, colleges alone are not to blame for these findings. Other data suggest that freshmen are arriving on campus with more intolerant attitudes toward free speech than their predecessors did, and that Americans of all ages have become strikingly hostile toward basic civil and political liberties.

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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Catherine Rampell's email address is crampell@washpost.com. Follow her on Twitter, @crampell.

(c) 2017, Washington Post Writers Group

 

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