College students and the First Amendment: What the right doesn't want you to know

Turns out the outrage over college students supposedly not supporting free speech is not supported by data

By Sophia A. McClennen

Contributing Writer

Published October 7, 2017 10:00AM (EDT)

College students protesting (Getty/Scott Olson)
College students protesting (Getty/Scott Olson)

Ever since the start of the school year we have had weekly reports of free speech intolerance on college campuses. A couple of weeks ago The Washington Post ran an op-ed entitled “A chilling study shows how hostile college students are toward free speech.” And it’s just one example among many. Everywhere one looks there is another article touting the demise of free speech on college campuses.

Even CNN’s Jake Tapper felt the need to jump into the mix:

The media frenzy over free speech on college campuses is so pervasive that even Jordan Klepper’s new satire show, “The Opposition,” decided to cover the topic during their first week on air. Citing a recent Pew Research Center study indicating that 58 percent of Americans think that colleges have a negative effect on our nation, Klepper then showed clips of Attorney General Jeff Sessions saying “freedom of speech and thought on campus are under attack . . . it is transforming into an echo chamber of political correctness, homogeneous thought — a shelter for fragile egos.” Next up was a Fox News clip where a student remarked, “professors are more concerned with teaching this PC narrative than they are with teaching the facts.”

Klepper quipped back: “Yes for some reason the people who spend all their time around books and learning all believe the same facts.” To drive home the absurdity of the debates over college campuses as intolerant echo chambers, Klepper then interviewed Kobi Libii, and they both mocked the idea that “there is more to expertise than knowledge.” The bit closed by pointing out that real intellectual intolerance is the “refusal to back down in the face of new data.”

And that is the real story. We have significant data to suggest that campus free speech is in no way threatened on college campuses. Even more, we have data that suggests that it is colleges and college-educated people who are the best champions for First Amendment rights. The real risk to the First Amendment comes from older Americans, especially right-leaning ones, not college kids.

Earlier this academic year I wrote a piece on what I am calling “blue-baiting,” a manufactured hysteria over the erosion of free speech protections on college campuses, which is designed to destroy public trust in higher education. The other side to the story, however, is how the overblown coverage of free speech issues on campuses ignores the reality of the millennial generation — a generation that is more idealistic about the First Amendment and more politically engaged than mainstream news coverage of colleges would lead you to believe.

Here are four key points to keep in mind when thinking about free speech, students and college campuses.

1. The right is orchestrating the negative press over campus free speech.

It is perhaps one of the great ironies of the new "alt-right" that they are the ones throwing fits about free speech on campus. It was only a short while ago that the right was at the forefront of all sorts of censorship. In the Ronald Reagan '80s, it was rock lyrics and other offensive speech that had the right up in arms. The argument during those years was that the left would corrode and corrupt young minds with sex, drugs, and rock and roll.

Arguably, it was the politically correct movement that created the upside down world we live in today. When those on the left made the seemingly outrageous suggestion that folks should avoid bigoted, hateful, and just plain obnoxious speech on campus, the right seized on these initiatives as an example of how their rights were being restricted. At the start of the PC wars, the right found a way to invert the story. Now they argued that they were the ones being censored, even though historically they have been the ones seeking to censor.

Fast-forward to today, and we have college campuses being used by the right as staging grounds to foster violence and provoke conflict. Whether protesting events featuring Milo Yiannopoulos or Ann Coulter or neo-Nazis, students are characterized as hostile to free speech when what they really don’t like is hate speech, racism, sexism, bigotry and Nazis.

The problem isn’t only the "alt-right" personalities who keep trying to entice students to push back on their scheduled appearances; it is also the so-called data that is being floated around as proof of student intolerance.

The study cited in The Washington Post and tweeted by Tapper claims that 20 percent of college students believe it is appropriate to use violence to shut down hateful or offensive speakers. But here’s the catch. The study was funded by the right wing, ideologue, billionaire Koch brothers and conducted by a UCLA professor with absolutely no polling experience of any kind.

John Villasenor, a professor of electrical engineering, argued that his survey offered important data on the troubling atmosphere on American campuses, where “freedom of expression is deeply imperiled.”

The Guardian, though, reported that there were serious concerns over the polling methods used by Villasenor. Cliff Zukin, a former president of the American Association of Public Opinion Polling, which sets ethical and transparency standards for polling, called the study “malpractice” and “junk science” and claimed that “it should never have appeared in the press.” The Guardian further pointed out that asking students about violence and speech in late August, in the days immediately after neo-Nazis and white supremacists marched through the university town of Charlottesville, Virginia, leading to the murder of one young woman, was guaranteed to skew results.

As Chris Ladd writes for Forbes, “empirical data suggests that free speech is alive and well on campus.” But rather than cover the truth, news outlets cover campus riots because such inflammatory reporting is “irresistible journalistic porn, flaming evidence to buttress our preconceived biases.”

2. College students are more positive than adults about all five First Amendment freedoms.

The stories of these conflicts have dominated the press. In fact, a recent survey showed that 61 percent of U.S. adults and 71 percent of college students report hearing a “great deal” or “fair amount” about the protests. And yet, while just about everyone has heard about the free speech wars on college campuses, what we don’t hear is the fact that the real weak link on the First Amendment is not on college campuses; it’s among older adults, especially uneducated and right-leaning ones.

Gallup/Knight Foundation poll from April 2016 showed that “college students hold a more optimistic and idealistic view of First Amendment freedoms than U.S. adults do.”  That study further showed that 73 percent of students and 56 percent of adults say free speech is secure in the U.S. today and that students are more positive than adults about all five First Amendment freedoms. They also found that adults are less confident than students about free speech protection. 40 percent of adults perceive a decline in free speech rights, compared to 22 percent of college students saying the same.

Even more revealing is that students are more open to various viewpoints, a data point that directly contradicts the Koch funded study that asked the same question but got radically different results because the poll sample was not sound. According to Gallup/Knight, 78 percent of students say colleges should expose students to all types of speech and viewpoints rather than prohibit biased or offensive speech. In contrast, they found far more intolerance among older adults. Only 66 percent of older adults supported the same open environment.

In the Koch funded study, there was no data drawn on adults as a point of comparison, but Villasenor’s poll showed only 53 percent of students supporting an environment where all types of speech and views were offered. The gap between his poll and Gallup’s is 25 percent — a fact that further shows how his data seems skewed.

But there’s more. While the "alt-right" wants everyone to look at colleges as hostile to free speech, it is actually the right itself that currently poses the biggest threat to the First Amendment. Beyond a sitting president who calls any critical news “fake,” the right is overwhelmingly hostile to a free press. In fact, Vox reports that “a fairly large plurality of Republicans — 45 percent — support allowing media organizations to be shuttered.”

It’s worth asking why more people are aware of campus protests of controversial speakers than of the fact that almost half of all Republicans favor censoring the news.

3. The only increasing threat to the First Amendment is a lack of higher education.

While there is a lot of hype about contemporary threats to the First Amendment, historical data shows that the First Amendment has long had a shaky history of support from U.S. citizens. The Newseum has reports on the state of the First Amendment that date back 20 years.

Their 1997 poll indicated that only 2 percent of the general public knew all five of the freedoms listed in the amendment. Even more disturbing, they found that 52 percent of Americans were against student newspapers reporting on controversy without approval of school officials; 57 percent believed that public school teachers should be allowed to lead school prayer; and 29 percent thought newspapers should not be allowed to criticize political candidates. The data from 1997 showed, according to the Newseum Institute, that “in more than two centuries, the lesson of the First Amendment has not taken with most Americans, or their leaders.” They found a “disturbing willingness to restrict specific kinds of speech, a distressing polarization among respondents on some issues, and a disappointing level of education about constitutional rights.”

And that was all before September 11, 2001. The 2002 Newseum poll found that one in three Americans believed that the First Amendment went too far. They also found that more than 40 percent said newspapers should not be allowed to freely criticize the U.S. military about its strategy and performance. That same study also showed that over 40 percent of Americans said they would limit the academic freedom of professors and bar criticism of military policy.

A First Amendment Center study focusing on reactions to controversial comedy that year found that 40 percent of Americans would like the government to step in to block tasteless comedy routines. In addition, a majority would ban public comments — funny or not — that might offend racial or religious groups: 63 percent said that people should not be allowed to say things in public that might be offensive to racial groups.

Looking at this historical data helps put things in perspective. While a disturbing number of U.S. citizens—whether students or not— would limit the First Amendment today, the truth is that lack of support for the five freedoms is not new.

What is new is the decline in even knowing anything about the First Amendment. Data from 2016 showed that 39 percent of Americans could not name any of the rights guaranteed by the First Amendment.

That is the real tragedy facing the First Amendment — not the hyped-up hysteria about college campuses and free speech.

In fact, the data also shows that higher education is central to protecting the First Amendment. A full 50 percent of those without a college degree could not name a single First Amendment freedom, whereas 27 percent of those with a college degree could not name any.

Even more important, it is not just a college education that helps citizens understand the First Amendment; it also helps them support it. Fourteen percent of those with a college degree said the First Amendment goes too far in the rights it guarantees, but almost twice as many, or 27 percent of those without a college degree, said the First Amendment goes too far.

4. College students are politically engaged and open to diverse views, but they don’t like President Trump.

As I’ve written about before, the myths about millennials and college students simply don’t match the facts. Described as whiny, entitled, snowflakes, today’s young adults are actually engaged, committed, and hard-working. Student protesters seem to take the most flak in the press. They have been described as overreacting, hysterical, entitled and coddled. They’ve been accused of lacking resiliencepracticing intolerance and being unable to grasp reality.

And yet, as Ladd points out in his piece, college students show habits of character that suggest they make solid and mature decisions. They are less likely than their elders to use illegal drugs, smoke cigarettes, or engage in dangerous or irresponsible sexual practices. They are also less likely to get pregnant or marry early. Even more important, millennials are better informed, more tolerant of dissent and less bigoted than older generations. He also cites data that suggests that they even have higher average IQs.

A new study by Achieve on millennial activism and social engagement shows that this generation has a “unique brand of social good and issue engagement.” They also find that millennials “are pushing the convergence of traditional philanthropy methods and online activism.” Tracking social engagement over time, they can now demonstrate how the young generation has moved from interest in core issues to activism.

They found that 71 percent of millennials feel that the country is going in the wrong direction. But rather than just complain about it, this generation is highly committed to doing something about it. An anonymous source in the study explains, “I think it’s inevitable that each person has a responsibility now to take care of our country . . . not just with infrastructure and things like that, but on a personal level. I don’t want my kids growing up in this kind of environment.”

Their study also found that educated millennials were less likely to support Trump and were more likely to vote. College educated millennials were more likely to participate in a march, engage in local activism, donate to a cause, petition government and take leadership on issues that matter to them. This means that college students don’t just support the First Amendment's five freedoms; they are actually taking advantage of them.

So, given these facts, is there a free speech crisis on college campuses?

Well, if you actually support the First Amendment, the data is clear. College campuses are not a threat to free speech. Contrary to the media hype, they are a prime place where the First Amendment is not only understood, but also valued and practiced.

While everyone frets about campuses as hostile to free speech it is worth remembering that what campuses are really hostile to is making up stuff and reporting on it as true. Colleges teach students to ground their ideas on facts, evidence, logical reasoning and sound arguments. So it’s no wonder that "alt-right," fact-averse ideas aren’t that welcome. As the Newseum likes to quote, "Freedom of speech is not a license to be stupid.”

By Sophia A. McClennen

Sophia A. McClennen is Professor of International Affairs and Comparative Literature at the Pennsylvania State University. She writes on the intersections between culture, politics, and society. Her latest book is "Trump Was a Joke: How Satire Made Sense of a President Who Didn't."

MORE FROM Sophia A. McClennen

Related Topics ------------------------------------------

Alt Right Campus Activism First Amendment Free Speech Free Speech On Campus Media