Poll of High Schoolers: No, Free Speech Shouldn't Protect 'Offensive' or 'Bullying' Comments

Posted: Feb 09, 2017 10:25 AM

One of the reasons that Mary Katharine Ham and I wrote End of Discussion in 2015 was our rising concern that Americans -- younger ones in particular -- are gradually adopting an increasingly hostile posture toward free speech and the open debate. One of the Left's most cynical ploys in stifling political discussions is to brand ideas they oppose as hateful and offensive, and therefore morally unworthy of further consideration. They seek to "win" debates, we wrote, by short-circuiting the process and preventing those debates from happening in the first place. Ours is largely a cultural critique, leaving detailed constitutional analyses and journalistic exposes of bureaucratic abuses to others. But citizens' views of what the constitution does, or should, protect can be heavily influenced by cultural pressures, which is why some key bits of this survey of American high school students conducted by the Knight Foundation are rather alarming:

Yikes.  Some of these results are open to interpretation because the question doesn't really drill down too far.  If kids think that "bullying" is synonymous with "specific threats of physical violence," they'd be right that free speech protections wouldn't apply.  But if they think that "you're fugly" taunts or "gay people are degenerate sinners" assertions rise to the level of speech that can be banned or criminalized, we're in more serious trouble.  One of the positive data points in this poll is that 91 percent majority atop the bar graph.  Allahpundit notes that the percentage of students who believe that unpopular speech is a protected right (to reiterate, so much of this comes back to the degree of under-explored overlap between "unpopular" and "offensive" or "bullying") has risen by eight points since this survey's 2004 installment.  That's real, heartening progress, as is the slow but steady incline in the blue line on this chart:

Students are less disposed than ever to believe that the First Amendment's safeguards of fundamental rights are too excessive.  That's reassuring, but only to a point.  AP mines another nugget from the results: "Worse yet, when the Knight Foundation asked students whether free speech is more important than protecting someone from being offended, just 64 percent said yes — a majority, sure, but not even a two-thirds majority."  That top line result is dragged down by smaller majorities of high schoolers of color (Asians, Hispanics and especially blacks) who believe that the value of upholding free speech trumps the value of insulating somebody from taking offense.  One of the more insidious tactics of the anti-discussion mob has been to conflate offensive speech with physical violence, rooted in a capacious definition of what constitutes "safety."  To the extent that this trick successfully and lastingly manipulates younger generations may determine whether free speech and expression remains a core American value.  Remember, it's unpopular/offensive/bullying speech that tests the principle.  It's relatively easy to protect anodyne, civilly-expressed speech; it's the nasty stuff that is much harder, and therefore especially vital, to shield from the bipartisan authoritarian impulse to ban and silence.  All said, findings of this survey are enough of a mixed bag as to nurture some cautious optimism and stave off outright despair, but there are some red flags flying, too. Via the inimitable IowaHawk, I'll leave you with this simple but incisive insight that ought to give anyone inclined toward the "let's ban offensive or bullying speech" position serious pause:

This point cuts both ways. Do conservatives want these terms and standards set by hysterical triggered snowflakes who value "protection" from ideas over free speech? And do liberals want those definitions determined and enforced by, say, a thin-skinned populist/conservative president with little tolerance for criticism of any sort?  The uniting solution is to link arms and keep free speech as free as possible -- and the (needed and appropriate) exceptions to that rule (excluding hate speech) as narrow as possible because the principle, and everyone's right to open expression, is potentially at stake.  Politics are cyclical.  Ideological pendulums swing.  Values must endure.  Can we count on our high school teachers to convey this truth and pass along this American torch to the next generation?  I'd like to hope so, but again...yikes.

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