College students mostly support free speech with some restrictions, survey finds

In principle, the majority of college students are supportive of free speech on campus and press freedom rights — but many believe it is sometimes appropriate to impose significant restrictions, a new survey released today found.

Almost 80 percent of college students believe that universities should create an open learning environment that exposes students to all types of speech and viewpoints, including some that are biased or offensive. But two-thirds of students say colleges should be allowed to have policies that restrict slurs and offensive language, as well as costumes that stereotype racial or ethnic groups. Black students, women and Democrats are especially likely to support these restrictions.

The majority of students — 70 percent — believe that students should not be able to prevent the press from covering protests on campus, but nearly half of students said there are legitimate reasons to do so: if protesters believe reporters will be biased, if the people at the protest say they have a right to be left alone and if the protesters want to tell their own story on the internet or through social media. A majority of black and female students found each of those reasons to be compelling enough to restrict press access.

These and other findings about free expression on campus were included in the Gallup survey, sponsored by the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation and the Newseum Institute. The study included 3,072 U.S. full-time college students, aged 18 to 24, and 2,031 U.S. adults, aged 18 and older.

College students are much more confident than U.S. adults about the security of First Amendment rights, the survey found — particularly freedom of the press, which 81 percent of students believe is secure versus 64 percent of adults, and freedom of speech, which 73 percent of students feel is secure versus 56 percent of adults. Forty percent of adults surveyed say the ability to exercise free speech is weaker today than it was 20 years ago.

The survey is released at a time when some feel like free speech on college campuses is under attack, between free speech zones and trigger warnings. And college students often seem to have a deep distrust of the press, particularly the student press. Student journalists have been denied access to campus protests, with some activists saying that protests are “safe spaces” for students and others saying a predominately-white press might not understand their perspectives.

According to the survey, 59 percent of college students have little or no trust in the press to report the news accurately and fairly. And only half of students first get their news from traditional news organizations — 26 percent would instead look on social media and 20 percent first go to digital sources like BuzzFeed and the Huffington Post.

At least seven in 10 college students whose campus has a student publication see it as having at least a somewhat important role in keeping students up to date on what is happening on campus, keeping students informed about issues that affect them and creating a place for the open exchange of ideas. Most of those students — 44 percent — think the most important role of the student media is keeping students up to date. About half of that — 24 percent — believe student media plays a key role in facilitating an open exchange of ideas.

Black and female students were more likely to say student media is very important for creating a forum for an open exchange of ideas and very important for keeping students up-to-date on events happening on campus.

Ninety percent of college students say a free press is more or just as important to democracy today than it was 20 years ago.

Full survey results can be found here.