Survey of free speech among Wisconsin college students gives depressing results

January 10, 2021 • 9:30 am

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.

41 thoughts on “Survey of free speech among Wisconsin college students gives depressing results

  1. 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.”

    My guess would be that women are also more susceptible to abusive language and online threats, especially from asshole MRA types.

    1. To clarify, I would have said ‘more targeted by abusive language and online threats’. The word ‘susceptible’ may be misinterpreted to suggest men have thicker skins, when the truth is the amount of abusive language and online threats is significantly greater for women.
      https://www.amnesty.org/en/latest/research/2018/03/online-violence-against-women-chapter-3/
      Given your extensive history posting here, I believe you meant it the same way I do.

      1. It’s likely that some of the discrepancy between men and women here is due to sampling error, as Dr PCC(e) says, but to the extent that the difference is real, I think you and Ken have the main cause.

        However, I would submit that at least some portion of this difference is attributable to what Hitchens was getting at in “Why Women Aren’t Funny”; men and women differ in the way we speak to each other. Just the other day I was talking to a left-wing gun owner friend of mine, Dan, who was complaining that people thought he was a MAGA hatter because he owned guns. I told him; “that’s not it, it’s because you’re nuts and have a tiny penis”. His response; “You got me there”.

        To many women what I said to Dan would be harassment – to my friend it was a joke playing on the idiotic meme that gun owners are crazy and compensating for defective genitalia. I have read several article like the one Dragon posted and though some of the examples given were unmistakenly harassment, many others struck me as merely badly aimed jokes. I suppose one could say that men need to learn how to speak to women, but, of course, women ought then to learn how to listen to men.

        1. But Dan is your friend. Would you have the same conversation with a man you didn’t know very well? There’s no way I would make that joke in a work context with a colleague, for example.

          Conversely, I have female friends (yes I do!) with whom I might have similar conversations (obviously penis jokes are out). I also have a married friend who frequently criticises the size of his wife’s breasts in public. On the other hand, she’s always telling us how his penis is too small. Everybody knows they are both joking at the other’s expense and there’s no harassment involved.

  2. The Wisconsin Pedant in me demands that I point out that “UWM” is the designation for the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee. The Madison campus is generally just called “UW” or “UW-Madison”.

        1. I once got a stern and unfriendly correction when I left out what is apparently a critically important determiner; “it’s THE Ohio State”. I still, to this day, don’t understand why.

          1. Yeah, they’re definitely particular about the definite article in the school name.

            My family — both sides — is lousy with stone-cold Buckeyes. I went to an OSU — er, excuse me, The Ohio State University — ballgame at The Shoe with the whole crew last season and got an earful.

  3. And civics in high-school. If Critical Race Theory were classified as hate-speech, I wonder how long it would be until many of these students saw the value of free-speech?

    1. Sneaky and clever. Agree 100%. Let’s classify CRT as ‘hate speech’ (which it often actually is).
      [Don’t get me wrong, I think there are some points in the CRT hypotheses that are worthwhile and probably true, but the associated ‘wokism’ is deplorable (Yes, I have been accused of being woke, can you believe it?)].

    2. It is hate speech. Also, I see parallels with Intelligent Design, both in its premises and in the online apologetics attempting to prop it up. It’s rife with logical fallacies. I’m working on an article on that.

  4. I also suspect that rightwingers’ favoring fewer restrictions is a matter of whose ox is currently getting gored, especially on campus, rather than some overarching commitment to the ideals of free expression for free expression’s sake.

    The American rightwing doesn’t have a particularly noble history when it comes to free speech.

  5. One problem that complicates comparisons with earlier generations (presumed to be more liberal about free speech?) is that the composition of university student bodies has changed immensely in terms of minorities and gender. Is it surprising that minority students might be more concerned about hate speech?

    Although these organizations focus on universities, the fact that these attitudes exist in first year students demonstrates that it is not universities inculcating these values but the larger society.

  6. The idea of regulating speech that “makes others feel uncomfortable” grows out of this generation’s experience of “safe spaces”, “trigger warnings”, personally chosen pronouns, education to “build self-esteem”, and the rest of the therapeutic mindset so much in vogue in their schooling. As Bill Maher has pointed out, if that is what you expect of life, then the outside world is not a place for you.

  7. 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.”

    One of the things which influences how people respond to polls is what those taking the poll think they’re expected to say. In our culture, women are supposed to be especially “compassionate and empathetic.” What passes as rational, strong, or honest in a man is often looked down on as “bitchy” or cold in a woman.

    I also suspect, as others have mentioned, that the misogynistic tendency for people to brutally attack or threaten women online might also be influencing their response.

  8. I am more interested in where exactly you all draw the line between acceptable speech and unacceptable speech. I gather that, for some on this site, there is no line. All speech is permissible. Writing that you want to be seen on live TV putting a bullet in Pelosi’s head is acceptable speech. It’s just words; people should be able to say that; they are just expressing their political view.

    I can’t agree. Words have consequences. That the Constitution is described as a delicate balance means rights are not absolute. Free speech does have limits, as does every other right. The hard work is in defining those. The absolutist argument is just a lazy way out of making difficult decisions.

    1. Speaking only for myself, you got it right. Unless the speech meets some very narrowly defined exceptions (you can refer to SCOTUS for these), ALL speech should be permitted by the government.

      But you’ve got one thing exactly backwards. It is in NO way lazy to defend our 1st amendment rights against people like you and is in fact a harder and more courageous way to approach our rights. It is EASY to silence speech you don’t like, much harder to defend that which disgusts us. I don’t think I would go wrong guessing, Leigh, exactly whose speech you’d like the heavy hand of government to silence. The problem for you in demanding that people you don’t like be muzzled is; what do you do if you find the government doesn’t like YOUR speech?

      Of course, that’s not what we’re talking about here, is it? Private groups, such as Twatter and Facebook are free to censor or not at their whim and that is their right. While I am concerned about the monopolies those groups have on the way we talk to each other these days, I don’t give a damn about anyone permanently removed from one of them. It’s their sandbox, you got to play by their rules. Just like here at WEIT.

      1. oops. scratch that last paragraph – I derped and thought this thread was on a different WEIT article (I should have scrolled up). I stand by the 1st two paras though.

      2. In fact, there are frequently bad consequences for people defending the free speech rights of others. For example, claiming, as Jerry does, that Holocaust Denial should not be illegal can get you labelled an anti-semite. If you object to the deplatforming of Germaine Greer just because she once asked the question “are trans women women?” (and suggested the answer is no), you are likely to find yourself branded as transphobic and therefore eligible for canceling, even if your answer to the same question is yes.

        A lot of people assume that defending somebody’s right to free speech means you agree with them.

    2. I’d rather people announced their intentions to assassinate Nancy Pelosi on social media than that they kept it all secret. It would make it a lot easier to stop them from doing it.

  9. “students clearly need education about the First Amendment”

    I’m curious about why you say this. I interpret the survey as asking the students their personal opinions, not what they believe the Constitution says. They’re of course free to have their own opinions on what government should be doing. I happen to believe (like you) that a lot of them are wrong, but that doesn’t prove they weren’t educated on the First Amendment.

    1. I say this because surveys show that students uphold the right to free speech, but when they’re asked about the particulars, as they were in this survey, they don’t really SUPPORT free speech as outlined in the First Amendment. Either they support free speech but not the first amendment, or they don’t understand the first amendment. In my own experience, students don’t really understand how the courts have interpreted the first amendment.

        1. The taxes pay for the socialist programs. I’m thinking you don’t really understand what the word “socialist” means.

            1. You make the error of thinking that “free market” and “socialist” are mutually exclusive. Your 911 system, fire department, and the freeway system you drive on are all socialist.

              1. Dream on! You have swallowed too many of the blue pills and washed it down with too much of the Blue Kool-aid. Good luck with that. Let’s just end it here, because we are not going to change each other’s minds.

              2. Just thought you would like to see what someone from Denmark really thinks.

                I am a citizen of Denmark, the Disneyland of socialism, where everybody is happy and healthy. Forget the Soviet Union, Cuba, Venezuela and all those power-mad Marxists who got it wrong. Denmark is the model to follow.
                There’s just one problem. It’s a fantasy.
                For it to be true, Denmark would have to be a socialist country. But it’s not. If it were, it would have gone “Venezuela” a long time ago. Sorry to bring all the new fans of socialism the bad news. But that’s the reality.
                Yes, it’s true that Denmark has high taxes and a high level of government spending – key features of a socialist mentality. But in almost every other respect, Denmark is a full-on free market capitalist country.
                And it has some of the strongest protections of individual property rights in the world.
                And it’s a particularly easy place to open a business. According to the World Bank, there is less bureaucratic red tape in Denmark than in any other country, except for New Zealand and Singapore.
                And the labor market is less regulated than in most countries. Here’s something you probably didn’t know: there are no minimum wage laws in Denmark.
                It’s not surprising then – or maybe it is surprising, given all the misinformation out there – that Denmark ranks consistently as one of the top-ranked free market economies in the world by The Fraser Institute in Canada and The Heritage Foundation.
                So, if Denmark is not a socialist country, what is it?
                The answer is pretty straightforward: it’s a small capitalist country (about the size and population of Maryland) whose citizens pay oodles in taxes in exchange for oodles in benefits.
                Well, what’s wrong with that? you might ask.
                Only this: for the government to pay out such benefits, you need citizens to make enough money to pay the necessary taxes.
                And that’s only possible through a free market economy.
                Let me explain – with some Danish history.
                Denmark, like its Scandinavian neighbors, Sweden and Norway, made a remarkable economic recovery after the Second World War. The combination of a highly productive work force and – get this – low taxes created a lot of wealth.
                So like every other wealthy welfare state, Denmark became wealthy before it created the welfare state.
                Relative to Europe, Denmark’s economic high-water mark was in the 1950s; relative to the US, it was the early ’70s. It was then, in the late ’60s and early ’70s, that the country’s ruling elite became preoccupied with wealth redistribution. But the price paid for this social experiment was steep and swift.
                The expansion of public spending led to a severe economic crisis. The national debt skyrocketed. It took decades of consolidation, structural reforms and curtailing of welfare schemes to straighten out this mess.
                This is the stuff you never hear about from the “Danish model” crowd.
                The sharp tax hikes and spending also sparked a widespread popular revolt and led to the emergence of the “tax protestors” party, Fremskridtspartiet. Even though the party no longer exists, the widespread desire to cut taxes remains.
                It’s worth noting that the welfare state originally began with government pension payments to the elderly. These social security-like payments are now in the process of being overtaken by private pension savings plans – the Danish equivalent to a 401K. That’s right – in reality, Denmark is gradually moving away from US-style social security. It can’t afford it. Denmark, the so-called socialist model, is returning the responsibility for retirement savings back to its citizens.
                And what about health care…free – right?
                Nothing is free. Danes pay for their health care through high taxes. Private health insurance is available, however. It’s becoming more and more popular as long wait times associated with government-run medical care becomes less and less popular.
                But in a welfare state, education is free – right?
                Well, that’s another thing about “free”: it doesn’t mean ideal. Almost one in five parents in Denmark chooses to send his or her children to private schools, paying part of the bill themselves.
                Yes, college is free, and even includes a living allowance, but there is a growing problem of getting students to graduate. Many wish to stay students and be supported by the state – one of those welfare-state problems socialists don’t like to talk about.
                And, again, all this “free stuff” comes with a price. The average Dane pays 50% of his income in consumption and income taxes – that’s right, I said 50% – while earning 15% less than the average American. After taxes, an average American has a 27% higher disposable income than a Dane.
                Don’t get me wrong – grey winters aside, Denmark has much to recommend it.
                It’s just that being a socialist paradise isn’t one of them.
                I’m Otto Brøns-Petersen, economist for The Center of Political Studies in Copenhagen, Denmark, for Prager University.

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