Study shows students confused, divided on First Amendment

Students with different political views are also split on issues like campus protests and disinviting guest speakers.

Allison Cramer

Less than half of college students are aware that the First Amendment protects hate speech, and about a third of those believe hate speech shouldn’t be protected, according to a new survey of students’ opinions on campus expression.

The October study from the nonprofit, nonpartisan group Foundation for Individual Rights in Education showed partisan divides on many subjects, like campus protests and guest speakers. Some members of the University community say they see this ideological gap growing more evident on the University’s campus.

FIRE conducted this survey of 1,250 students because many other analyses of free speech attitudes haven’t focused specifically on students, said Nico Perrino, director of communications for FIRE.

“We’ve always wanted to get data on what students actually think about their free speech and how comfortable they are expressing themselves on campus,” Perrino said.

The study found almost all students support the First Amendment in the abstract, he said. But when it comes to speech they find offensive or harmful, many no longer support its protection, the survey shows. 

Students may not understand First Amendment protections because they simply haven’t read the amendment or learned about it, said Jane Kirtley, a journalism and law professor at the University. 

“The bottom line is the First Amendment protects thoughts and speech that we don’t like,” Kirtley said. “If it only protected the speech that everybody agreed with, there would be no need for a First Amendment.”

Campus protests are a polarizing issue for students, the study found. About one-fourth of self-identified Democrats agreed with the statement “I should not have to walk past student protests on my college campus,” compared to 60 percent of Republicans.

Many students feel that speech they consider to be hurtful or disrespectful shouldn’t be allowed, Kirtley said.

“These feelings are certainly legitimate feelings. They just happen to be wrong from a legal perspective,” Kirtley said. “We’re a state university, which means that, without question, we are subject to the First Amendment here.”

The survey’s findings also demonstrate a partisan gap on the subject of guest speaker disinvitations. Seventy-eight percent of very liberal students support the withdrawal of a guest speaker’s invitation in some cases, and 38 percent of very conservative students feel the same way.

Democrat students are most likely to support the disinvitation of a speaker with racist views, while Republican students are most likely to support disinvitation of a speaker with anti-American views, according to the study.

The invitations of guest speakers at the University should be considered on a case-by-case basis, said Braxton Haake, president of the University College Democrats.

“In general… I’m not for de-platforming speakers, even conservative speakers whose views I might find abhorrent,” Haake said. “I think you still have to let them speak.” 

Haake said he thinks the University climate generally supports free speech.

“As far as I can tell, the University seems open to hearing a diverse range of opinions from a diverse range of people,” Haake said.

Symantha Clough, president of the campus Minnesota Bipartisan Issues Group, said especially in the last couple years, many students feel like they are being silenced.

“At the University, people tend to get shut down if you have an opinion that the majority doesn’t agree with you on, and that goes both ways, for conservatives and liberals,” Clough said.

Kirtley agreed that the political climate is more polarized than it has been in a long time.

“I don’t think Mr. Trump invented this situation, but he has exploited it,” Kirtley said. “There’s a perception that people that have had thoughts that many would characterize as hate speech for a long time now feel freer to express those thoughts, so in a way the veneer of civility that existed before has now been revealed to be a pretty thin one.”

The president of the University’s College Republicans did not respond to requests for comment, and a representative from conservative student group Turning Point USA was not available before publication.