A partly cloudy forecast for the First Amendment: Newseum study finds mixed level of public knowledge and support for free-speech principles

At a time of unprecedented national alarm over the free-speech climate on college campuses, a new survey finds only 57 percent of Americans are convinced that students should be allowed to engage in speech that offends others, while 25 percent “strongly” believe otherwise.

Even fewer Americans — 35 percent — agree that high school students should have a protected right to speak when their speech offends others, while 43 percent “strongly” say they shouldn’t.

That’s the takeaway from the State of the First Amendment survey released Friday by the Newseum Institute to coincide with the upcoming Independence Day festivities. Each year, the Newseum surveys Americans about their knowledge of and belief in First Amendment principles — and each year, the results provide a mixture of glass-half-full-or-half-empty insights.

The survey found an overall decline in awareness of what the First Amendment protects — fully 39 percent of adults can’t name any of the five constitutionally protected freedoms (speech, religious, press, assembly, petitioning the government) — but, encouragingly, found that most Americans reject the notion that the First Amendment “goes too far” or that journalists have “too much” freedom.

The public’s hesitance to protect offensive speech in colleges and schools sharply contrasted with opinions about speech in other contexts; only 10 percent of those surveyed said they support laws “protecting people from hearing things that offend them.”

The Newseum survey comes amid widespread attention to the restrictive climate for speech on college campuses, where it has become commonplace for student activists to interrupt the speeches of guest lecturers or force their colleges to cancel the visits of controversial speakers, and where student media outlets are facing threats to their funding and obstructions to their access prompted at times by outrage from their peers over coverage decisions. 

The entire survey is online here at the Newseum Institute’s website.