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Staff Pick: The Promise and Limits of First Amendment Rights on College Campuses
August 16, 2018

Becca Leviss is a Knowledge Services Fellow at Foundation Center, and an undergraduate student at Tufts University majoring in Sociology.
 
Becca 2Institutions of higher learning are natural places for the open exchange of ideas, debating diverse viewpoints, and learning from people who come from different backgrounds. Yet, in recent years, the issue of free speech on college campuses has at once empowered, and also confused, isolated, and angered students, university administrations, alumni, and the American public.

As a college student myself, this report by Gallup, the Knight Foundation and the Newseum Institute caught my eye. There’s a running joke about the death of free speech on my campus, and I’ve experienced limitations on both sides of the spectrum: choosing not to speak up during class, feeling offended by thoughtless comments, and tapping into comraderies made obvious by a shared intellectual space. While I acknowledge the difficulties of censorship and seclusion, I cannot ignore the way ideological bubbles have provided a sense of security in my college experience. Likewise, as students, academics, and active citizens, we have an obligation to uphold the tenets of American democracy, but also recognize its nuance and complexity.


STAFF PICK

Free Expression on Campus: What College Students Think about First Amendment Issues

Download the Report

Publisher

John S. and James L. Knight Foundation; Gallup, Inc.

Funders

John S. and James L. Knight Foundation; American Council on Education; Charles Koch Foundation; Stanton Foundation

Quick summary

Young people continue to be at the forefront of ideological movements and change-making in American society. As a result, they are demographically opinionated and invested in First Amendment issues. This report updates a 2016 nationally representative study of college students on the security of First Amendment freedoms to account for rapidly shifting political, social, and ideological arenas following the most recent presidential election. While the study confirms the value and overall perception of relative security of free expression for college students, it finds that students are less likely now than they were in 2016 to say that their rights are secure. Their ideology is also often contradictory: students criticize overly-prohibitive campuses and extreme actions to prevent unpopular speech, but statistically are more likely to value inclusion and diversity over free speech.

Field of practice

Human Rights and Civil Liberties

What makes it stand out?

FgtReading this report serves as an important reminder of the fragility of our liberties in shifting political and social contexts, and how those contexts can impact our perspective of security. The report, a continuation of a 2016 study, investigates the intricacies of First Amendment protections through the perspectives of college students and administrations. As university actors attempt to navigate one of the more contentious issues in an already-contentious time, we gain insight the complexity of a free society by examining it through the eyes of the new generation. Since the data collection began with the 2016 study, the authors are able to compare how respondents’ attitudes changed over time.

The report begins with college students’ views of First Amendment rights. Overall college students are less likely to see First Amendment rights as secure, especially when compared with the 2016 survey. This includes a 21-percentage-point decline in perceived security of freedom of the press and nine-point declines for free speech, freedom of assembly and freedom to petition the government. The report also looks at how political party affiliation may affect these perceptions. For example, the percentage of Republicans that feel that their First Amendment rights (freedom of speech, religion, press, assembly, petition) are very secure or secure in the country today has increased in comparison to the 2016 study, while Democrats and Independents’ sense of security has decreased significantly since 2016. The study shows that Republicans are far more likely than Democrats to perceive their First Amendment rights as secure. We see this difference most notably in their views on freedom of the press and freedom of assembly. Almost eight in ten Republicans think that the freedom of the press is secure in 2017, in comparison to almost five in ten Democrats. Even fewer Democrats think that freedom of assembly is secure, compared with 74 percent of Republicans. Independents generally fall somewhere in between the perspectives of Republicans and Democrats.

Some of the most notable shifts in perceptions are in regards to freedom of speech and freedom of the press. While 71 percent of Republican respondents think that their freedom of speech is very secure/secure (an increase of five percentage points), only 59 percent of Democrats responded the same, a decrease of fifteen percent from 2016. Across the board, however, respondents report thinking that the freedom of the press is less secure than it was in 2016, regardless of political ideology.

The report also provides insights into groups that don’t always feel they can speak freely on campus. Female students and students of color, for example, are less likely to feel secure about their First Amendment rights. And, college students are much less likely to believe that political conservatives can freely express themselves, compared with other groups.

The study illustrates college students’ struggles to reconcile the importance of both free speech and inclusion in a democratic society. Although students feel that campus climate stifles their ability to speak freely, they largely support university measures to control speech, like the creation of safe spaces, free speech zones, and campus speech codes. When asked to choose between a diverse, inclusive society and protecting free speech, a slight majority of 53 percent favored the former. Conversely, an overwhelming 70 percent support an open learning environment that exposes students to a variety of speech.

The report also reveals that the debates that may have once happened on campus may now be moving to social media, an increasingly popular medium of expression for young people. Fifty-seven percent of students say that discussions of political and social issues take place mostly over social media, as opposed to public areas of campus. Despite social media’s popularity, however, students fear that it generates negative impacts for expression. 63 percent of students disagree that dialogue over social media is mostly civil and 83 percent fear that it is too easy for people to say things anonymously on social media platforms. These negative attitudes towards ideological expression on social media are only increasing. Most dramatically, the percentage of students that believe social media stifles free speech because users block dissenting opinions has risen 12 points since 2016.

The report closes with a look at students’ perceptions about the limits of free speech. Openness advocates will find this section most interesting as it outlines circumstances under which students feel limits on free speech are appropriate. The study examines student reactions to issues of free speech on college campuses from disinviting controversial speakers to on-campus protests—I can say that I’ve experienced most of them firsthand at my own school. The study found that while students oppose disinviting controversial speakers on campus, they do support it under the threat of violence, although 34 percent of respondents concede that violent reactions are sometimes acceptable. Regardless, more than six in ten students are not even aware of the free speech codes of their respective schools, let alone if their schools have ever had to disinvite certain speakers.

Overall, the “…findings make clear that college students see the landscape for the First Amendment as continuing to evolve,” and reveal the complexity of the ongoing debate on First Amendment rights.

Key quote

“College students generally endorse First Amendment ideals in the abstract. The vast majority say free speech is important to democracy and favor an open learning environment that promotes the airing of a wide variety of ideas. However, the actions of some students in recent years — from milder actions such as claiming to be threatened by messages written in chalk promoting Trump’s candidacy to the most extreme acts of engaging in violence to stop attempted speeches — raise issues of just how committed college students are to upholding First Amendment ideals.”

--Becca Leviss

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  • Transparency Talk, the Glasspockets blog, is a platform for candid and constructive conversation about foundation transparency and accountability. In this space, Foundation Center highlights strategies, findings, and best practices on the web and in foundations–illuminating the importance of having "glass pockets."

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