Politics, Social Issues, Spring 2018 Articles

NC State Students on the Free Speech Debate

Debates about free speech on college campuses have emerged once more. Well-known incidences prompting conservatives to question university’s commitment to free speech involved the University of California at Berkeley and right-wing pundits Milo Yiannopoulos and Ann Coulter.  Yiannopoulos’ speech was cancelled after violent protests and President Trump threatened to defund Berkeley as a result. Coulter’s speech was cancelled amidst fears of similar protests. She declined to return and speak the following week, even though a suitable venue was made available. This debate seems to have devolved into conservatives mocking “snowflakes” and their need for “safe spaces,” versus liberals who question whether speech to be protected included so-called “hate speech” and bigotry.

Before I delve into what NC State students think about free speech, let’s clarify the law: there are generally nine types of speech not protected by the First Amendment: obscenity, fighting words, defamation, child pornography, perjury, blackmail, incitement, true threats, and solicitation to commit crime. The definition of “fighting words” is complicated, and would typically entail a face-to-face confrontation intended to be provocative or intimidating. Incitement usually requires someone to intentionally, effectively, and directly encourage or organize a riot or violence. Symbolic expression of speech, such as a burning cross, is constitutionally protected, however, the usage of symbolic expression to threaten an individual or group is not. There is no exception for hate speech under the First Amendment. At the same time, free speech is typically viewed in context of government censorship, not a citizens’ right to say whatever they want, wherever they want.

In our most recent survey, over half (54%) of NC State students believe that the First Amendment protects hate speech, while 46% disagreed. However, political affiliation clearly shapes these perceptions. Our survey found that 70% of Republicans believe speech is protected by the First Amendment, but just 41% of Democrats feel the same.

Most State students nevertheless favor an “open” learning environment which allows offensive speech over one which prohibits “certain speech.” In this case, 74% think that an open learning environment is preferable. What State students think is in stark contrast to the Brookings Institute’s findings, which sparked alarm, in which the distribution between the two options was nearly 50-50.

Further, the vast majority of State students find both violent and non-violent protest unacceptable.  Here we find that 95% of students say it is “unacceptable” for a student group to use violence in order to prevent a speaker from delivering his presentation; this includes 94% of Democrats, 100% of Republicans, and 90% of Independents.  Similarly, 87% disapprove of a student group loudly shouting to keep the audience from hearing the presentation; this includes 79% of Democrats, 98% of Republicans, and 86% of Independents. When Brookings asked college students nationwide a similar question, the distribution was wildly different.  They found 51% of students agreed that repeatedly shouting was acceptable, and 19% said the use of violent protest was acceptable.

We also measured students’ attitudes towards free speech by presenting two scenarios, presented randomly: one in which a far-right speaker would be delivering a speech, and one in which a far-left speaker would be delivering a speech. When asked whether NC State had the right to cancel the speaker’s appearance under threat of violent protest, the majority of Democrats thought the university had the right to cancel the appearance, whether it was in the context of a far-left or far-right speaker. The results are quite different in the case of Republicans. Nearly half (48%) of Republicans believe that the university does not have the right to cancel the appearance of a far-right speaker; 21% believe the university does not have the right to cancel the appearance of a far-left speaker.

NC State students are more likely to advocate for the protection of free speech when it aligns with their party identification. For this reason, the national debate around speech on college campuses works in the favor of speakers like Ann Coulter. There simply isn’t an ultra-liberal far left equivalent to Richard Spencer, so it’s easy for Republicans to mock “snowflakes” and people who are actually affected by hate speech. Perhaps, instead of questioning a speaker’s right to speak on campus, we should consider the pedagogical value of the speech. What value would a speech from Milo Yiannopolous discussing the merits of racial profiling add to our education? What would it teach us? Additionally, we should consider the financial ramifications affecting universities’ decisions on these issues, on both sides of the debate.


NOTE ON METHODOLOGY:  This PackPoll took place March 27- April 2, 2018. We administered the survey over the internet to a random sample of 3,500 NCSU undergraduates. The true population of undergraduates taking at least one face-to-face class on campus is 21,192.  Each student had an equal chance of being contacted because each student is required to have a unique “ncsu.edu” email.

Of those invited to participate, 782 undergraduates completed the survey, resulting in a 22% response rate.  Assuming a 50-50 division in opinion calculated at a 95 percent confidence level, the margin of sampling error for the sample is (plus or minus) +/-3.4% for questions answered by the full sample. However, sampling error increases for each estimate when three or more choices were offered, for example, 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 female respondents answered a question.  Many of our split-ballot questions have effective sampling errors ranging from +/-5.2% to +/-6.4%.  These sampling errors did not include further divisions of the respondents by party identification or other common demographic variables.

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 only apply post-stratification sample weights for student status There is a slight under-representation of males in our sample, but not enough to warrant applying post-stratification weights for sex as it would not produce noticeable effects on any of the results.

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