Politics, Race, Social Issues, Spring 2017 Articles

Limits to Acceptable Speech?

woman speaking into megaphone
Opinions on the limits of acceptable speech have shifted in recent months.

What kinds of speech do the Wolfpack community find unacceptable?. Apparently, almost any potentially offensive speech fails to receive strong support. We asked students if they agreed or disagreed with speech that was: critical of government, offensive to minorities or religious groups, sexual in nature, or calling for violent speech. Except when speech is critical of the government, students were ambivalent or disagreed that it was acceptable. These questions about speech were also asked in our survey leading up to the 2016 election. In most cases, the results are consistent.

For example, 39% agreed that people should be able to publicly make sexually explicit comments, while a bare majority (51%) answered differently. Conversely, a bare majority (53%) found speech offensive to religious beliefs acceptable while 35% did not.


There were two instances where opinions changed since 2016. First, more students in 2017 oppose speech that is offensive to racial minorities. Second, even more are now opposed to speech that is sexually explicit. Sexually explicit speech in 2016 had the plurality support, but in this most recent poll 51% disagreed that it was acceptable. Likewise, those who agreed and disagreed about the acceptability of racially offensive speech were essentially deadlocked at 45%. Now, 51% disagreed racially offensive speech was acceptable.

Similar, albeit less dramatic, results were observed in the assessment of whether this sentiment also applied to minority groups. In the Fall, those that agreed and disagreed were essentially deadlocked at 45% a piece, but as the numbers show, that stalemate was broken with a strong shift to majority disagreement. Although it only saw half the boost that sexually explicit statements did, the two combined show a marked shift in the opinion of NC State students.

What might have prompted these shifts in two types of speech but not the other three? The most likely explanation is that recent and controversial statements and actions by President Trump, and those working in his administration, have created a backlash. The explanation would be consistent with academic studies that find abstract commitment to liberties such as free speech tend to depend heavily on what was said, and who said it. Regardless, the widespread intolerance for offensive speech fits conservatives’ narrative about liberal intolerance of free speech.

A Toplines report for all survey questions, and results, is available here: Big Poll Spring 2017 Toplines

NOTE ON METHODOLOGY: This semesters’ “Big Poll” took place February 14-18, 2017. The survey was administered over the internet to a random sample of 4,500 NCSU undergraduates and 876 completed the survey, generating a 19.5% response rate. Assuming a 50-50 division in opinion calculated at a 95 percent confidence level, the margin of sampling error for this survey is +/-3.25% when questions were answered by the full sample; sampling error increases for estimates when three or more choices were offered, when fewer respondents were asked a version of a question, or when analyzing the opinions of sub-groups, such as when looking just at how females responded to a question.

In addition to sampling error, other forms of non-sampling error occur in surveys, such as confusion about question wording or the order of questions, and non-response bias (low response rates), but these types of error are not precisely quantifiable. We do not apply post-stratification sample weights for the slight demographic imbalance in gender because weighting the data would not have noticeable effects on the results.

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