If you ask a group of college students whether it’s ok to punch a controversial speaker in the face, how many do you think would say yes?
It’s probably more than you think. In a new Brookings Institute study, one in five college students surveyed said using violence against a speaker known for making offensive statements was acceptable.
The number seems low at first, the study’s author muses, until you remember these students are fine with physically attacking people. “Any number significantly above zero is concerning,” he points out.
Support for a violent response to speech isn’t limited to one political party, either. Almost the same percentage of Democrat and Republican students said they believed violence was acceptable.
This study found what many young adults already know: Colleges—which are supposed to be bastions of free speech and anti-censorship—have become anti-free speech zones.
In the survey, over half of students said they support banning certain speech in order to “create a positive learning environment.” Half also said they agree it’s acceptable to disrupt an event and shout down a speaker they find offensive.
This should be deeply concerning for young Americans like us. Freedom can’t exist without broad freedom of speech. This is true even if—or perhaps especially if—that speech is considered to be offensive. The abolitionist movement, the suffrage movement and the civil rights movement were all highly controversial at first.
Vocal leaders of these now-celebrated causes regularly faced attempts to silence their speech through gag rules, intimidation and even physical violence.
So why are so many of our generation increasingly opposed to free speech? The author of the study says part of the problem is that middle- and high-schools aren’t putting an emphasis on studying what the First Amendment means. As a result, many of us aren’t learning about the importance of free speech and what the First Amendment does—and doesn’t—do.
Nearly half of college students surveyed believe the First Amendment doesn’t protect “hate speech” (it does). Sixty percent thought organizations hosting controversial on-campus events were legally required to feature another speaker who presents an opposing view (they aren’t).
All of this is not to say that every controversial idea is on equal footing with, say, civil rights. Lots of controversial or offensive ideas are horrible. But if bad controversial speech can be silenced, good controversial speech can be silenced as well.
The best way to combat offensive or hateful speech isn’t silencing, it’s more speech. Hateful ideas won’t hold up in the face of vigorous, open debate. Fostering an environment where the free exchange of ideas is encouraged should be students’ number one goal.
In the 60s, students fought long and hard to ensure freedom of speech and academic freedom on campus. We should be celebrating those freedoms, not seeking to stifle them.
You can sign the petition and add your voice to protect free speech.