Students Say Free Speech Is Alive, With One Big Exception

The audience cheered at the University of Missouri in Columbia while listening to members of the group Concerned Student 1950 last November. Credit Jeff Roberson/Associated Press

The college campus, long a home to spirited protests and expressions of provocative opinions, can also be home to safe spaces, trigger warnings, news media restrictions and rules about what can be written in chalk on the sidewalks.

But most students don’t believe that their First Amendment rights are under attack, according to a new Gallup survey: 73 percent said they thought their freedom of speech was secure.

There was one notable exception along racial lines: While 70 percent of white students said that their right to assemble was secure, just 39 percent of black students said the same.

The survey, based on phone interviews with 3,072 United States college students and 2,031 adults, was sponsored by the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation and the Newseum Institute and released on Monday.

The study showed that students hold complicated views about the limits of free speech.

Seventy-six percent said they believed the freedom to petition the government was secure, and students said they were eager to hear perspectives on contentious issues other than their own.

“In principle, college students really do favor environments where one can be exposed to all sorts of views,” the Knight Foundation’s vice president of learning and impact, Sam Gill, said in a phone interview.

Yet, 54 percent of the students surveyed said their campuses had less-than-open environments, which prevent colleagues from saying what they believe out of fear of offending people. They drew a distinction between political speech and hate speech, supporting efforts to curb speech that would offend specific groups but not opposing political viewpoints.

Students were more optimistic than other adults in the security of their rights. While 73 percent of students said their freedom of speech was secure, just 56 percent of adults did. (And 64 percent of adults said they believed that press freedoms were safe.)

In the abstract, 70 percent said students should not be able to restrict the news media from covering protests on campus. But when faced with specific situations, they were much less certain. Almost half of the students said reporters should be denied access if protesters believe the reporting would be biased (49 percent), if the protesters want to be left alone (48 percent) and if the protesters want to tell their own story online (44 percent).

Black and female students were more likely to find the restrictions acceptable, the survey found.

“They’re clearly divided about the notion that they can ask to be left alone,” Mr. Gill said.

While protests have long been a staple of college campuses, the ability of students to create their own messages via social media has created tension with journalists, whom they increasingly distrust. In one high-profile example, students built a physical barrier between protesters and journalists at the University of Missouri last year, and Melissa Click, a professor, asked for “muscle” to remove a student journalist. She was later fired.

Source: The New York Times

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