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A Shocking Number of College Kids Think Violence Against a Speaker Is OK

The results of a recent study on free speech suggest the future of the First Amendment is in peril.

by Allie Conti
Sep 20 2017, 8:05pm

Results of a survey published this week by the Brookings Institute paint an pretty bleak picture of how college students view free speech in the US. John Villasenor, a researcher at Brookings, asked 1,500 kids enrolled in schools across 49 states and Washington, DC, four questions about their thoughts on the First Amendment and found that not only did they possess a shocking ignorance about one of the country's foundational ideas, but that many condoned violence against people they disagreed with.

Two of the survey questions tested basic literacy of the Bill of Rights. One asked: "Does the First Amendment protect hate speech?" It does, but 44 percent of students said the answer was "no," while only 39 percent got the question right. The leftover 16 percent admitted that they didn't know. Even more survey respondents—62 percent—thought that groups hosting campus events were legally required to feature speakers who represent both sides of an issue.

Another set of questions tested how the students would respond to a controversial speaker that espoused "hurtful" views. Fifty-one percent said it was OK to shout so that other people could not hear the speaker talk—a tactic known as no-plaforming—and 19 percent said that violence from a student group was an acceptable response to "offensive" statements.

The responses vary wildly by party affiliation, and in some case, by gender. For instance, self-identified Republicans were more likely to disagree with shutting down controversial speakers, and women were much more likely to say that hate speech was not constitutionally protected.

A detailed analysis of the results is forthcoming, but the study's author said that the timeliness of the subject and the delays associated with academic publishing compelled him to get some of this information out to the public as soon as possible.

"We don't need to turn middle and high school students into experts on constitutional law," Villasenor wrote. "But we can do a better job of giving them a fuller explanation of the scope of the First Amendment, and the fact that it protects the expression of offensive views."

He added, "And, I would hope that we can do a better job at convincing current and future college students that the best way to respond to offensive speech is with vigorous debate, or peaceful protest—and not, as many seem to believe, with violence."

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