State of the First Amendment? Many Americans say it shouldn't protect divisive campus speakers, hate speech on social media

When asked if colleges should be able to ban controversial speakers with histories of provoking extreme opposition, 43.3 percent of respondents in a Newseum survey agreed.

The survey results, released Thursday, are from an annual effort by The Newseum Institute (“the State of the First Amendment“) to gauge the attitudes of Americans about the constitutional right to freedom of expression.

That such a large share of the public is prepared to compromise free-speech principles to avoid controversy concerns First Amendment advocates.

“Who gets to define what’s controversial? Who gets to be the arbiter of that?” asked Clay Calvert, director of the Brechner First Amendment Project at the University of Florida.

Calvert, who finds the survey results to be “very disturbing and sad,” believes that public and private universities are supposed to foster marketplaces of ideas. Instead of dismissing speakers with unpopular viewpoints, he said colleges have a large responsibility to uphold and teach students about the First Amendment.

These survey results come after several protests on college campuses this year against provocative figures. Last month, 67 students at Vermont’s Middlebury College received disciplinary action for disrupting a speech by Charles Murray. Murray, author of “The Bell Curve,” has been described by the Southern Poverty Law Center as a “white nationalist” for asserting that the genetic inferiority of racial minorities, the poor, and women causes social inequality.

Jonathan Peters, an attorney who teaches media law at the University of Kansas, empathizes with marginalized groups and says he is aware of the “pain that speech can cause.” However, he believes students should look at the history of free speech in America to understand how its broad protections have made it possible for disadvantaged groups to attain further rights.

“One of the important elements of the history of free speech is that going back through the civil rights movement, the women’s rights movement, any movement in which we have tried and succeeded in securing civil rights and civil liberties, free speech has played a role in that,” Peters said.

To have a productive conversation with students about protecting free speech, he encourages colleges to “open up a dialogue” about the First Amendment by inviting those with unfavorable perspectives to speak. The proper response from students, he said, is counter-speech.

Other parts of the survey found that:

  • 54.9 percent disagreed that people should be allowed to express racist views on social media.
  • 70.8 percent disagreed that the First Amendment should protect purposely fake news reports; the Supreme Court has said that even false speech is protected against government restriction.
  • 22.5 percent agreed with the statement that the First Amendment “goes too far” in protecting speech. This is consistent with public attitudes since 2015; during 2013-14, public skepticism peaked, with more than 35 percent of respondents indicating that the First Amendment “goes too far in the rights it guarantees.”