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Majority of College Students Say Their Campus Climate Hurts Free Speech

An increased majority of U.S. college students, 61 percent, now agree that the climate on their college campus “prevents some people from saying things they believe because others might find them offensive,” according to a Gallup survey released Monday. This number is up from the 54 percent of U.S. college students who thought this was the case in 2016.

Additionally, Democrats were more likely to think the campus climate stifled free speech than Republicans. Sixty-three percent of students who were Democrats held this view as opposed to just 53 percent of Republican students, a reversal from the 2016 survey when Republicans were more likely to believe this.

Students on both ends of the political spectrum were in agreement that conservatives are less able than other groups to express their views on campus. According to Gallup, “sixty-nine percent of college students believe political conservatives can freely and openly express their views on campus. While still a majority, it is far less than the 92% who say the same about political liberals. Between 80% and 94% of students believe other campus groups, including many that have historically faced discrimination, can freely express their views.”

Despite a greater number of students agreeing that their campus environment hurts free speech, fewer students now favor an open campus environment that permits all types of speech, down to 70 percent from 78 percent in 2016.

The study found that the majority, 56 percent, of college students believe protecting free speech rights is important in a democracy, but a 52 percent majority also believes that promoting an inclusive society for diverse groups of people is important in a democracy. When asked to choose which is more important, the majority chose an inclusive society over free speech rights, 53 percent to 46 percent.

Students also favored policies that restrict speech on campus such as a ban on costumes that stereotype racial or ethnic groups, 60 percent, and establishing "free speech zones" on campus, 83 percent.

A slim majority of students, 51 percent, are still opposed to instituting speech codes that prohibit biased speech on campus.

College students are also largely opposed to canceling speaking invitations for controversial campus speakers, just 28 percent are in favor, but 69 percent of students do support canceling speeches because of security concerns over violent protests.

Ten percent of the college students surveyed said violence was “acceptable” in response to controversial speakers and 37 percent believed shouting down such speakers was "acceptable."

The survey’s results are “based on telephone interviews conducted Nov. 1-Dec. 10, 2017, with a random sample of 3,014 undergraduate students attending four-year U.S. colleges full time.”

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