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Students want to prohibit ‘slurs’ but not ‘unpopular’ speech, survey finds

Just one in five black students has participated in racial protests

Students think highly of their own value for free speech despite their willingness to restrict the viewpoints of others, according to a Gallup survey released Monday.

Though the survey, sponsored by the Knight Foundation and Newseum Institute, found different perceptions among races regarding the racial climate of their colleges, most students have not observed regular racial incidents.

Racial protests have an enormous impact on campus life, with 54 percent of students saying their campuses have seen racial protests. Nearly one in eight reports participating in such a protest – a figure that rises to one in five among black students.

Gallup used a random sample of 3,072 full-time American college students, ages 18 to 24, and 2,031 adults, ages 18 and older. The telephone-based survey was conducted Feb. 29–March 15.

The Knight Foundation’s Sam Gill, vice president of learning and impact, previewed a handful of survey results at its campus free speech conference in Washington Saturday.


Racial incidents are uncommon

Racial protests that broke out at college campuses across the country in the fall may have made incidents of racism appear more common than they were.

The Legion of Black Collegians at the University of Missouri, for example, said that black students there experienced racism on a “daily basis” after an intoxicated white student crashed their dress rehearsal for a homecoming court and said the n-word.

This would appear to be an isolated incident. Three in four students told Gallup the racial climate on their campus was good (48 percent) or excellent (26 percent). Only 6 percent rated it as poor.

This was only slightly less likely for black students: 13 percent rated the racial climate at their college as poor, but most found it excellent or good (62 percent). Others surveyed rated it even more positively: Asian students (70 percent), Hispanic students (74 percent) and white students (76 percent).

Most college survey respondents said they had rarely (47 percent) or never (22 percent) encountered disparaging comments about race, ethnicity or religion around their campus. Only 6 percent said they had heard such comments frequently.

Thirty-two percent of students believed their campus was racially diverse. The poll answers vary little by race, gender and party affiliation, though students at public colleges and larger colleges believe their campuses to be less racially diverse by moderate margins.

Speech codes effective at hampering free speech

While college students generally support allowing unpopular political speech (63 percent), they think certain speech goes beyond simply “unpopular.”

College students are also favorable of speech codes: policies regulating student decorum and free expression of ideas that their peers might find offensive. Sixty-nine percent believe that colleges should be permitted to restrict “slurs” and other “intentionally offensive” speech, and 63 percent believe colleges should be allowed to prohibit costumes that are perceived to stereotype racial or ethnic groups. One in five students wanted their university to institute further restrictions, while only 7 percent thought speech codes had gone too far.

However, a slight majority (54 percent) are wary that these policies are creating a climate that is hostile to free expression, echoing the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education’s yearslong warning about a “chilling effect” on campus.

In January, FIRE President Greg Lukianoff called the resurgence of speech codes “almost inevitable” even though his group’s most recent report showed that institutions rated “red light” – its worst speech classification – had dipped below half of colleges.

College students think highly of free speech, stifle free speech anyway

Despite favoring restrictions on particularly offensive speech, college students still think of their generation as more tolerant than their elders.

College students said 71 percent of their peers respected freedom of speech, while saying that 63 percent of adults do the same. Adults rated themselves and students about equally at 60 percent in respect for free speech rights.

In November few students objected when students at the University of Missouri formed a human wall around a racial protest camp site on campus to keep out journalists who were covering the resignation of System President Tim Wolfe. At Smith College, racial protesters barred access to journalists who refused to agree to support the group’s mission.

Gallup’s survey suggests that college students on the whole reject this strategy, however. Seventy percent say students should not be able to prevent reporters from accessing protests. Black students are more sympathetic to the idea of limiting access, but even then 57 percent disagree with this strategy.

RELATED: Universities are missing the point by emphasizing ‘diversity,’ American U. official says

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About the Author
Mark Schierbecker -- University of Missouri