So what do college students think they should do when confronted by speakers whose views they find hurtful or offensive?
Should they shout the speaker down, making so much noise no one else in the audience can hear what the person is saying? According to a recent survey, about half of college students believe the answer to that question is yes.
About 1 in 5 think it would be OK to resort to violence to stop such a person from speaking.
And what of the campus organization that sponsors such an appearance? Does that organization have a legal obligation to invite a speaker with an opposing view? More than 3 in 5 students responding to the survey said yes.
More than 2 out of 5 thought hate speech was not protected by the First Amendment.
And all of those answers, of course, are wrong.
Such were the findings of an online survey of 1,500 college students led by UCLA public policy professor John Villasenor. The survey carried out from mid- to late August was funded by the Charles Koch Foundation. Villasenor shared the results in a recent article for the Brookings Institution.
“The survey results establish with data what has been clear anecdotally to anyone who has been observing campus dynamics in recent years,” he wrote. “Freedom of expression is deeply imperiled on U.S. campuses.”
Every college student should know the way to respond to a speech we find objectionable is not to shout down the speaker. The answer to a hate-filled speech is not to resort to violence.
And all students should understand there is no legal requirement that the sponsor of a controversial speaker provide equal time to the other side.
They should also know the First Amendment protects a speech by the Ku Klux Klan in the same way it protects a speech by those who find the Klan abhorrent.
Given his finding that so many college students fail to grasp those principles, Villasenor has some suggestions.
“First, I think that college faculty and administrators have a heightened responsibility to do a better job at fostering freedom of expression on their campuses,” he said.
He acknowledged, though, accomplishing that might not be easy.
“I expect that if college faculty and administrators were asked the questions in this survey, the results would, at least in broad terms, be similar, …” he wrote. “That said, I would hope that results such as these can help spur faculty members and university administrators to think about the importance of creating a campus environment in which students are exposed to a broad range of views, including some that students may find disagreeable.”
He also called on middle schools and high schools to do a better job of teaching students about the U.S. Constitution and Bill of Rights.
“We don’t need to turn middle and high school students into experts on constitutional law,” he said. “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. 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.”
Those lessons are crucial not just on college campuses, but in the nation as a whole.