Opinion

New Study: First Amendment Illiteracy Isn’t Confined to Leftist College Students

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Posted: Mar 21, 2018 12:01 AM
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New Study: First Amendment Illiteracy Isn’t Confined to Leftist College Students

On March 14, Facebook banned the page of a British nationalist group, alleging the page featured anti-Muslim hate speech. Though Facebook is certainly within its rights to ban these kinds of loathsome groups, the recent flurry of similar social media bans on political activists has garnered significant backlash from conservatives. The prominent right-wing organization Prager University filed a lawsuit late last year accusing YouTube and Google of unjustly censoring PragerU’s content. Other conservatives argue America is in a free speech crisis, particularly accusing leftist college students and their professors of misunderstanding the First Amendment. Though these concerns have merit, it is not just America’s left-leaning students who are ignorant about free expression.

Many are justifiably frustrated at the spectacles presented by radical student activists who shout down conservative speakers and seem to openly resent the First Amendment. Some conservative pundits like Tucker Carlson and Sean Hannity take it too far by railing exclusively against university students and their professors, claiming colleges are overrun by leftists. As a consequence, they argue, the left is overwhelmingly responsible for causing a campus free speech crisis.

But do a select number of incidents provide sufficient evidence to pin the blame exclusively on progressives? A January 2018 study published in the UPenn Journal of Constitutional Law examined polling data from students of various political affiliations and analyzed how their views stack up against key Supreme Court decisions regarding the First Amendment. It found many ways in which students, both conservative and progressive, do not understand constitutionally protected speech.

The problem is not that students are hostile to free expression. According to the essay’s author John Villasenor, a Brookings Institution scholar, there are some instances where “many respondents have an overly narrow understanding of the scope of expression that is protected under the First Amendment.” Yet, he also observes instances where many students have an overly broad understanding of free expression. 

To Villasenor’s first point, only 39 percent of respondents correctly recognize that hate speech is protected by the First Amendment, with little variation between Republicans and Democrats. Even more alarming, significant percentages of Republicans and Democrats (22 percent and 20 percent, respectively) think a student group would be justified in using violence to silence an offensive speaker.

But another survey question asked if a diner, in response to receiving poor service at a restaurant, would be justified in posting a Yelp review falsely claiming they got food poisoning. Despite this being a clear case of defamation, nearly half of the surveyed students believed this false Yelp post would be constitutionally protected. Interestingly, Republican students were more likely (51 percent) to make this blunder than their Democratic counterparts (43 percent). In this case, students of all political stripes espoused unreasonably broad views on free expression.

Perhaps the most puzzling figure was that 62 percent of respondents thought a student organization hosting a controversial speaker at a public university is legally required to present an opposing viewpoint. Again, almost identical numbers of Republican and Democratic students thought the law required public universities to provide counterbalancing ideas. Though widely considered a good practice, providing counter-viewpoints is certainly not constitutionally required. It is hard to imagine how such a standard could be meaningfully enforced anyway.

It is not accurate to say left-leaning students hold more restrictive views on free speech than right-leaning students do. But, regrettably, it is accurate to say many college students are ignorant of First Amendment principles. Even worse than on college campuses, First Amendment illiteracy plagues the public at large. Though most criticism is directed at millennials and college students, General Social Survey (GSS) polling data suggests older generations are less tolerant of many kinds of offensive speech than younger generations are.

However, as pointed out by Vox’s Matthew Yglesias, overall support for many kinds of free speech in America has been rising steadily since the 1970s. One notable exception is racist speech, which moderate progressives have become less tolerant of. Yglesias also notes that college graduates are more supportive of free speech—which flatly contradicts popular right-wing narratives that universities mobilize students to resent the First Amendment. 

People should be encouraged by these trends. But, there is always cause for concern when anyone is ambivalent over an issue as fundamental as free expression. In an age of anonymous digital communication and constantly evolving speech platforms, everyone would benefit from more education on America’s First Amendment principles. It is silly and inaccurate to scapegoat leftists, university students, young people, or any other single group.

Christian Barnard is a Young Voices Advocate and a policy researcher based in Boston, MA. Follow him on Twitter @CBarnard33.