I don’t want to make too much of the results of this survey, as it was based on only a small and limited sample of students: 530 undergraduates at the University of Wisconsin at Madison (UWM) surveyed in 2020. And one could argue that the results are somehow biased because one of the two surveying bodies, the Tommy G. Thompson Center on Public Leadership, looks as though it leans toward the right, though not strongly so. (The other partner was the University of Wisconsin Survey Center, which is a data-collection organization that seems pretty objective.)
The upshot is that students are depressingly eager to regulate First-Amendment free speech, and generally favor regulation of “hate speech” and government restriction of speech. The researchers also found that women are more in favor of restricting speech than are men—sometimes strongly so—and that conservatives are, in general, less in favor of restricting speech than are liberals.
The latter comes as no surprise to me given that liberals are more responsible for deplatforming college speakers, but I wasn’t previously aware of a sex difference. I suppose if I were to impute that result to anything (the authors don’t discuss it), I’d guess that women are in general more compassionate and empathic than men, and thus more in favor of restricting speech that’s assumed to create “harm.”
Click on the screenshot to go to the pdf:
I’ll summarize the results by questions asked:
A.) Hate speech. The topic broached was “The government should be able to punish hate speech.” The survey did not define hate speech, but that’s okay because those who oppose it rarely do.
63.2% of all students agreed (either “strongly”, “somewhat” or “slightly”, categories that we’ll use from now on), 30.5% of all students disagreed, and 6.2% had no opinion. In other words, more than twice as many students thought the government (yes, the government, not the school) should be able to punish hate speech than thought otherwise. Here’s the breakdown by sex, showing that women favor punishing more than men (74.9 % of women favor government punishing compared to 46.9% of men).
And a breakdown by politics, showing that conservatives favor less punishment. Since this breakdown by politics is seen in nearly every question, I won’t discuss it that much. (I will highlight below the difference between men and women, which is new to me):
I suppose some people could argue that conservatives are more often to be “haters,” and that explains the result. Nevertheless, UWM is a public school and the Supreme Court, in a 2016 decision, ruled that what most people consider hate speech is protected by the First Amendment:
“[The claim that the government may restrict] speech expressing ideas that offend… strikes at the heart of the First Amendment. Speech that demeans on the basis of race, ethnicity, sex, religion, age, disability, or any other similar ground is hateful; but the proudest boast of our free speech jurisprudence is that we protect the freedom to express ‘the thought that we hate’.”
In other words, the “restrictors” are explicitly violating what federal courts consider to be free speech.
B.) Hate speech #2. The question asked was “A person should be able to prevent another person from speaking if they believe the person’s speech is ‘hateful’.”
In toto, 44.9% of all students agreed, while 56.3% of all students disagreed, and 7.9 had no opinion. Here the results are somewhat better for free-speechers, but still, almost half of students argued in favor of prevention. And again there was a sex difference: 56.6% of women agreed compared to 29.1%—a substantial difference.
64.6% of students who described themselves as “very liberal” favored the prevention, compared to 14.5% of students who described themselves as “very conservative”
C.) Racially insensitive speech. The question asked was “Should government restrict the speech of racially insensitive persons?” Note that the question is a bit ambiguous, as it could be taken to mean that all speech of bigots should be restricted, but I think it’s clear they’re referring to “racist speech.”
Here the overall result was about 50:50, or rather, 53% of the students thought that the government restriction was appropriate, while 47% though there should be no restriction. Again, we see a male/female divide, with 66.6% of women favoring restriction compared to only 43.3% of men. And there was the conservative/liberal divide: 29.6% of self-identified liberals supported speech restrictions compared to only 9.7% of conservatives.
D.) Holocaust denialism. The question asked was “Should the government restrict the speech of Holocaust deniers?” Although this kind of speech is illegal in sixteen European countries and in Israel, I strongly favor its legality, for it’s a question whose answers (and the supporting data) need to be handed down among generations. Holocaust denialism is of course legal in the U.S.
Nevertheless, 55.5% of all students thought the government should restrict denialism compared to 45.5% who did not. Here’s a pie-chart breakdown by sex, showing what we see above—a big difference (the data are presented in different forms throughout the document, and they should have been consistent):
Conservatives were again less in favor of such restrictions than liberals.
E. Restriction of speech that discomfits others. The question asked was “Speech should not be regulated even if it makes others feel uncomfortable.” Here, an “agree” answer is in favor of free speech.
Overall, 35.7% of students disagreed, urging some regulation, while 55.3% agreed. Here we have a majority in favor of free speech. But nearly half of the women (47.6%) were in favor of regulation of such speech, compared to 26.6% of the men.
F. Restriction of speech of Climate-Change deniers. The question asked was “Should government regulate the speech of Climate Change Deniers?” I don’t think most of us would favor government regulation of discussion of a scientific issue, even though the scientific consensus is clear.
The reserachers didn’t ask about creationism, but neither would I ban discussing the misguided ideas of creationism, as they gives us a chance to present the evidence for evolution—just as climate-change denialism allows us to present counter-speech with evidence for anthropogenic global warming. To be in favor of restriction means you’re in favor of restricting discussion of a scientific issue, even if that discussion is tainted with political bias (nearly all on the conservative side).
Again, most students (62.1%) came down on the side of free speech, but 37.9% were censorious, and that’s a hefty portion. And there was a substantial sex differential, with almost half the women but only a quarter of the men urging restriction.
On this one issue, there was not much of a difference between conservatives and liberals, as one might expect given the political connection between conservatism and climate-change denialism.
The survey went on, asking questions about whether public institutions can revoke invitations to speak if the speaker “may offend” the audience, a question about whether the government should be able to restrict biased media, whether social media should monitor and remove offensive speech, whether public schools should set aside 15 minutes of time for private prayer (a lot more agreement than disagreement here!), and whether business owners should be able to enforce their religious beliefs on others, like refusing to sell contraceptives (or, I suppose, gay wedding cakes). But I’ve already gone on too long, and will let you read the results for yourself.
A brief upshot:
1.) A surprisingly large number of UWM students favor restriction of speech, even though most of what those restrictions violate the First Amendment.
2.) Substantially more women than men favor restriction of speech. I don’t really understand this result, and we should remember that this is a smallish sample from a single college, but if it’s general it would need an explanation. You’re welcome to advance your own hypotheses in the comments.
3.) In general, conservatives favor less restriction of speech than do liberals. Given that the nature of the speech subject to this survey’s questions was on issues where there is already a political divide, I would have liked to see a more general question about restriction of any speech considered legal under the First Amendment.
I agree with the study’s authors, who say at the end that students clearly need education about the First Amendment. They broach a number of possible solutions, including infusing courses with First-Amendment material or giving them an introduction to free speech when they arrive at college.
Given the logistic problems of the former solution, I favor a “free-speech” unit when students enter college. That would be quite fraught now, for the students might interpret this as a college telling them that it’s perfectly fine to utter “hate speech”. (Legally it is, but socially it’s not.) But there could be lively discussion of the benefits of free speech, what “hate speech” really constitutes, and so on. I think it’s best to have these discussions before college students, steeped in an atmosphere of ideological conformity, become hardened in their opposition to free speech.
Oh, I forgot to mention that UWM, as a public institution, is required to abide by the First Amendment.