First Amendment at Risk on Today’s College Campuses

“If men are to be precluded from offering their sentiments on a matter, which may involve the most serious and alarming consequences that can invite the consideration of mankind, reason is of no use to us; the freedom of speech may be taken away, and dumb and silent we may be led, like sheep, to the slaughter.” – George Washington

Unfortunately, many young adults do not seem to share the urgency of the Founders in protecting the First Amendment’s freedom of speech. Indeed, they don’t even appear to understand it.

A new study from the Brookings Institution found that a majority of college students are fine with silencing speech they find offensive, that a plurality believe that the First Amendment does not protect “hate speech,” and even that a sizable minority believes that violence can be used to stop a speaker they disagree with.

The study provides substantive data to a trend we’ve pieced together through troubling anecdotes on campus over the last several years: That a culture of political correctness is fostering “safe spaces” and crowding out freedom of expression.

As Bill Clinton ably described, silencing a minority with whom you disagree comes with profound societal impacts.

“One of the things that’s wrong with America today, that bothers me more than anything else about our future, is that we have separated ourselves into like-minded communities… we don’t want to be around very many people who disagree with us,” Clinton said. “And the truth is in an independent, complex world, diverse groups make better decisions than homogenous ones.”

Young adults are in many ways pushing back against the theoretical foundation of higher education. We are willfully rejecting exposure to not just viewpoints that we disagree with, but from issues and topics that make us uncomfortable. In reality the best response to “hate speech,” which is rare, or ideas with which we disagree, which are common, is more speech and better ideas. How can we test the strength of our ideas or even articulate our view effectively if they are never challenged, discussed and debated?

Yet this pursuit of truth is not a priority for today’s youth. As conservative Ben Shapiro, who UC Berkeley spent $600,000 to keep secure during a recent campus speech, writes for National Review:

[On campus], students were taught that their self-definition was crucial to their future success and happiness. College was no longer a place for training for a job or even for life; it became a place to “find yourself,” to “explore your horizons.” That rationale justified a massive increase in college enrollment, but it also reinforced the belief among administrators and college students than any inhibitors to that goal — such as reality — were too threatening to be allowed. “Safe spaces” had to be built. “Microaggressions” that might threaten self-definition had to be fought.

This move on college campuses was part and parcel of a broader societal problem in politics: In a pluralistic democracy, we don’t merely develop our own existences and satisfy ourselves in such self-definition. All too often, we demand that others accede to those self-definitions.

Brookings scholar John Villasenor’s national survey of 1,500 undergraduate students breathes life to these words. Here are some of the disturbing results:

  • A plurality—44 percent— of students believe that the First Amendment does not protect “hate speech,” with 41 percent of Democrats and 39 percent of Republicasn saying “no”
  • A majority—51%—believe that it is ok to “disrupt the speech” of a speaker with whom they disagree such that “the audience cannot hear the speaker,” including 62 percent of Democrats and 39 percent of Republicans
  • Nineteen percent of students believe that it is permissible for student groups to use violence to prevent a controversial speaker from speakings, with 30 percent of males and 10 percent of females agreeing
  • A majority—53 percent—say that schools should protect them from speech that is “offensive or biased” while 47 percent believe the school should “create an open learning environment where students are exposed to all types of speech and viewpoints.”

“Today’s collect students are tomorrow’s attorneys, teachers, professors, policymakers, legislators and judges,” Villasenor writes of his findings. “If, for example, a large fraction of students believe, however incorrectly, that offensive speech is unprotected by the First Amendment, that view will inform the decisions they make as they move into positions of increasing authority later in their careers.”

It’s a frightening future that we as a generation must work hard to change