The Real Crisis of Campus Free Expression

College campuses should be bastions of free speech.  Today, they often seem to be the very places in American society where there is the least tolerance for controversial ideas.  Unfortunately, much of the discussion of why this has occurred is based on the ad hoc experiences of a few campuses, including Berkeley, Claremont McKenna, and Middlebury that briefly gained national attention when lecturers were harassed or prevented from speaking by unruly and, occasionally, riotous crowds.

Systematic public opinion polling and anecdotal evidence suggests that the real problem of free expression on college campuses is much deeper than episodic moments of censorship: With little comment, an alternate understanding of the First Amendment has emerged among young people that can be called “the right to non-offensive speech.”  This perspective essentially carves out an exception to the right of free speech by trying to prevent expression that is seen as particularly offensive to an identifiable group, especially if that collective is defined in terms of race, ethnicity, gender, or sexual identity.

A Gallup survey sponsored by the Knight Foundation and the Newseum illustrated the emerging views of a new generation.  In fact, most college students (73 percent in our survey) are confident about the security of free speech, and even more (81 percent) believe that the free press is secure.  They are actually much more sanguine than older adults about both the current state of free speech (only 56 percent of adults believe speech is secure) and free press (64 percent for adults).

However, the same survey found that today’s college students also favor restrictions on free speech when it comes to slurs and other language that is deliberately upsetting to some groups.  Sixty-nine percent favor limitations on this kind of speech, while 63 percent support policies that restrict the wearing of costumes that stereotype particular groups.  Notably, all student subgroups – including whites, men, and Republicans – support restrictions on slurs and costumes.  Students view these restrictions as consistent with their understanding of the First Amendment.

The result, not surprisingly, are campus climates shaped by policies designed to reduce offensive speech but that also discourage expression.  Our survey found that 54 percent of students agree that their campus climate “prevents some people from saying things they believe because others might find them offensive.”

Of course, high-level observations about an entire age cohort are by definition difficult and care must be taken in making generalizations.  However, to ignore the different view that many of today’s students have on free speech would be to doom any effort to promote intellectual exchange on campus.

The effort to promote free speech on campus cannot simply focus on how many speakers are allowed.  Rather, a systematic effort must be undertaken to educate young people about the importance of free speech.  Most notably, the case for free speech will be especially persuasive to young people if it is repeatedly and powerfully argued that free expression especially benefits minorities and those alienated from society.  Young people themselves are the best ambassadors for this message.  Such an approach will depoliticize the discussion and thereby build a larger constituency for free speech.  Absent such efforts, we may continue to speak past each other. Other critical steps include:

  • Elementary and secondary schools must educate students on the First Amendment, how far the right of free expression extends, and the opportunities it affords to those who want to change society.  Students carry attitudes with them to college so we must address young people when their views on free speech are first being formed.
  • Colleges and universities must make an absolutist case for speech to a generation of students who have more complicated views.
  • Colleges and universities will have to become much more deliberate about encouraging advocates of free expression.

Generational attitudes develop over long periods of time and it will require sustained attention to ensure that tomorrow’s leaders understand that the long-standing understanding of our First Amendment freedoms is critical to the functioning of our democracy.

Guest author Jeffrey Herbst is President and CEO of the Newseum in Washington, D.C.  This paper is excerpted from “Addressing the Real Crisis of Free Speech,” which can be found at:  The Free Speech on Campus project – including two conferences and this paper – was supported by a grant to the Newseum Institute from the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation.