2020 College Free Speech Survey: Who finds what kinds of protest behavior acceptable?

2020 College Free Speech Survey: Who finds what kinds of protest behavior acceptable?

2020-10-28 21:15:00
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The death of George Floyd prompted protests in many cities throughout the country. In some, like Portland, Seattle, New York, and Chicago, they’re still happening. These protesters tend to be younger than Americans overall, as roughly 4 in 10 (41%) of them are under the age of 30. The protesters are also more likely to be non-white, lean towards the Democratic party, and live in an urban setting. 

American college students also tend to be under the age of 30, lean towards the Democratic party, and are increasingly non-white. Additionally, interest in campus politics and student support for disinvitations, shoutdowns, and the use of violence as acceptable forms of protest has recently increased. Somewhat fortuitously, in our 2020 survey on student attitudes toward freedom of speech, FIRE asked students about how acceptable it was to use four different kinds of behavior to protest a campus speaker in our 2020 College Free Speech Survey. Specifically, students were asked if it was “always,” “sometimes,” “rarely,” or “never” acceptable for students to protest speech by:

  • Removing flyers or other advertisements for an upcoming speaker or event on campus?
  • Shouting down a speaker or trying to prevent them from talking?
  • Blocking students from entering a campus event?
  • Using violence to stop a speech or event on campus?

Overall number of students who say:

 

Overall, students said that removing flyers or advertisements and shouting down a speaker were more acceptable forms of protest than blocking students from entering a campus event or the use of violence. To some degree this makes sense and is encouraging — blocking entry and using violence are physical altercations, whereas removing flyers or advertisements or shouting a speaker down are not. Yet a notable portion of students still found these more violent forms of protest “always,” “sometimes,” or “rarely” acceptable. Gender, racial/ethnic, and partisan differences were evident in student responses, and this blog post summarizes them.

Removing flyers or other advertisements for an upcoming speaker or event on campus

36% of students say it is “never acceptable” to remove flyers or other advertisements for an upcoming speaker or event on campus. A similar percentage of students (34%) say such behavior is “rarely” acceptable, and about 1 in 3 say such behavior is “sometimes” (23%) or “always” (6%) acceptable. 

36% of students say it is “never acceptable” to remove flyers or other advertisements for an upcoming speaker or event on campus.

Roughly 2 in 5 male students (41%) say removing flyers or other advertisements was “never” acceptable, compared to roughly 1 in 3 female students (32%) and 1 in 5 non-binary students (21%). 

Racial/ethnic differences on this question are not as stark as the gender differences (and the partisan differences discussed below). Slightly fewer than two-fifths of white students (37%) and Hispanic/Latino students (39%) say it is “never” acceptable to remove flyers or other advertisements. About 1 in 3 black students (34%) and 30% of Asian students also say such behavior is never acceptable. 

Percentage of students in each ideological category saying the protest behavior is “never” acceptable.

Removing flyers or other advertisements for an upcoming speaker or event on campus? Shouting down a speaker or trying to prevent them from speaking on campus? Blocking students from entering a campus event? Using violence to stop a speech or event on campus?
Extremely liberal 14% 13% 36% 61%
Liberal 22% 21% 51% 80%
Slightly liberal 28% 29% 59% 83%
Moderate 43% 46% 70% 85%
Slightly conservative 49% 53% 74% 88%
Conservative 55% 63% 78% 89%
Extremely conservative 61% 67% 78% 85%

 

Finally, clear partisan differences on answers to this question are evident. Overall, 22% of liberal students (those who identified as “extremely liberal,” “liberal,” or “slightly liberal”) say it is “never” acceptable to remove flyers or other advertisements. This compares to 43% of moderate students who say such behavior is “never” acceptable, and 53% of conservative students (those who identified as “extremely conservative,” “conservative,” or “slightly conservative”). 

The survey asked students to identify their political ideology on a seven-point measure that included the following options: Extremely liberal, liberal, slightly liberal, moderate, slightly conservative, conservative, or extremely conservative. When looking at all seven points on the ideological spectrum students used to identify their political leaning, we find that most students who identify as “extremely liberal” consider the removal of flyers or advertisements for a campus speaker or event an acceptable form of protest behavior; 61% say it is “always” (22%) or “sometimes” (39%) acceptable to use such a tactic. Among “liberal” students, the percentage finding the behavior “always” or “sometimes” acceptable is 42%, and among “slightly liberal” students it is 33%. Among conservative students, fewer than 1 in 5 of “slightly conservative” (17%), “conservative” (14%), and “extremely conservative” (17%) consider removing flyers or advertisements “always” or “sometimes” an acceptable form of protest behavior.

Shouting down a speaker or trying to prevent them from speaking on campus

39% of students say it is “never acceptable” to shout down a speaker or to try to prevent them from speaking on campus. A slightly smaller percentage of students (34%) say such behavior is “rarely” acceptable, and 27% say such behavior is “sometimes” (23%) or “always” (4%) acceptable. 

Slightly more than 2 in 5 male students (44%) say shouting down a speaker is “never” acceptable, compared to roughly 1 in 3 female students (34%) and 1 in 4 non-binary students (27%). 

Overall, 22% of liberal students say it is “never” acceptable to shout down a speaker. This compares to 46% of moderate students and 58% of conservative students who say such behavior is “never” acceptable.

Racial/ethnic differences are also present. Approximately two-fifths of white students (41%) and Hispanic/Latino students (39%) say it is “never” acceptable to shout down a speaker. One in 3 Asian students (33%) also say such behavior is “never” acceptable. Among black students, roughly 1 in 3 (29%) say shouting down a speaker is “never” acceptable. 

Finally, clear partisan differences are again evident. Overall, 22% of liberal students say it is “never” acceptable to shout down a speaker. This compares to 46% of moderate students and 58% of conservative students who say such behavior is “never” acceptable. 

When looking at all seven points on the ideological spectrum students used to identify their political leaning, we find that students who identify as “extremely liberal” consider shouting down a campus speaker acceptable form of protest behavior, as 63% of them say it “always” (18%) or “sometimes” (45%) acceptable to use such a tactic. Among “liberal” students, the percentage finding the behavior “always” or “sometimes” acceptable is 42%, and among “slightly liberal” students, it is 29%. Among conservative students, fewer than 1 in 6 of “slightly conservative” (14%), “conservative” (11%), and “extremely conservative” (16%) consider shouting down a speaker “always” or “sometimes” an acceptable form of protest behavior.

Blocking students from entering a campus event

63% of students say it is “never acceptable” to block students from entering a campus event and 26% say such behavior is “rarely” acceptable. Roughly 1 in 10 say such behavior is “sometimes” (9%) or “rarely” (2%) acceptable. Nevertheless, this means that more than a third of students believe that blocking other students from entering an event on campus may at times be an acceptable form of protest behavior. 

Among the “extremely liberal” students, about 1 in 3 of them say it is “always” (7%) or “sometimes” (26%) acceptable to block students from entering a campus event. This drops off sharply with “liberal” students, only 13% of whom find the behavior “always” or “sometimes” acceptable.

Roughly two-thirds of male students (66%) say blocking students from entering a campus event is “never” acceptable, compared to 60% of female students and 42% of non-binary students. 

Racial/ethnic differences were also evident. Almost two-thirds of white students (65%) and more than 3 in 5 Hispanic/Latino students (61%) say it is “never” acceptable to block students from entering a campus event. The percentages of black students (57%) and Asian students (55%) who say such behavior is “never” acceptable are slightly lower. 

Again, the starkest differences are based on political ideology. Overall, 51% of liberal students say it is “never” acceptable to block students from entering a campus event. This compares to 69% of moderate students who say such behavior is “never” acceptable, and 76% of conservative students. 

Once again, when looking at all seven points on the ideological spectrum students used to identify their political leaning, we find that students who identify as “extremely liberal” are responsible for a good amount of the difference between liberal students and their moderate and conservative counterparts. Among the “extremely liberal” students, about 1 in 3 of them say it is “always” (7%) or “sometimes” (26%) acceptable to block students from entering a campus event. This drops off sharply with “liberal” students, only 13% of whom find the behavior “always” or “sometimes” acceptable. Among “slightly liberal” students, it is down to 10%. Among conservative students, fewer than 1 in 10 of “slightly conservative” (6%) and “conservative” (6%) students consider blocking entry “always” or “sometimes” an acceptable form of protest behavior, while a full 1 in 10 “extremely conservative” students say this. 

Using violence to stop a speech or event on campus?

82% of all students surveyed say it is “never acceptable” to use violence to stop a speech or event on campus and 13% say such behavior is “rarely” acceptable. Very few students say such behavior is “sometimes” (3%) or “always” (1%) acceptable. However, these percentages still mean that almost 1 in 5 students finds the use of violence by students to stop a speech or campus event acceptable in at least some circumstances.

Over 8 in 10 male students (81%) and female students (84%) say using violence to stop a speech or event on campus is “never” acceptable, compared to 67% of non-binary students. 

Racial/ethnic differences are present, but not that pronounced. More than 8 in 10 white students (84%) say it is “never” acceptable to use violence to stop a speech or event on campus. Roughly 8 in 10 Hispanic/Latino students (80%) also say this. The percentages of black students (76%) and Asian students (77%) who say such behavior is “never” acceptable are slightly lower. 

Yet as with the other three questions about protest behavior, stark partisan differences are prevalent. Overall, 78% of liberal students say it is “never” acceptable to use violence to stop a speech or event on campus. This compares to 85% of moderate students who say such behavior is “never” acceptable, and 88% of conservative students. 

As with the other questions, when looking at all seven points on the ideological spectrum students used to identify their political leaning, we find that students who identify as “extremely liberal” are responsible for a substantial amount of the difference between liberal students and their moderate and conservative counterparts. Among “extremely liberal” students, 13% of them say that it is “always” (3%) or “sometimes” (10%) acceptable to use violence to stop a speech or campus event. Yet among “liberal” and “slightly liberal” students the percentage finding the behavior “always” or “sometimes” acceptable falls precipitously to 4%. Among conservative students, 3% of “slightly conservative” and “conservative” students consider using violence “always” or “sometimes” an acceptable form of protest behavior. However, this number doubled to 6% when considering only “extremely conservative” students. 

Conclusions

There are clear differences between student groups over the acceptability of different kinds of protest behavior. The most prominent differences were partisan. “Liberal” students, and in particular the “extremely liberal” students, found each kind of protest behavior more acceptable than their moderate and conservative counterparts. In particular, compared to their “slightly liberal” and “liberal” counterparts, the“extremely liberal” students surveyed are far more supportive of each form of protest behavior, especially the more violent forms of protest we asked about (blocking entry to an event; using violence to stop a speaker or event). 

Male students tended to be less supportive of each form of protest, with the exception of the use of violence, compared to female or non-binary students. Female and male students did not differ much on the acceptability of the use of violence. Of note, for each form of protest, more non-binary students find them “always” or “sometimes” acceptable than male or female students. For instance, 33% non-binary students say the use of violence is “always,”  “sometimes,” or “rarely” acceptable compared to 19% of male students and 16% of female students. 

When it comes to racial/ethnic differences, they are not as stark. White students tend to be less accepting of each form of protest behavior. Hispanic/Latino students look fairly similar to their white counterparts, while black and Asian students appear to be somewhat more accepting of the different kinds of protest behavior we asked about. 

Overall, there are encouraging and worrying signs in the responses to these survey questions. It certainly is a good thing that a vast majority of students find the use of violence to stop a speech or event on campus “never” acceptable. Yet, as noted above, slightly fewer than 1 in 5 do consider the use of violence acceptable. Given the number of college students enrolled across the country, this is a startlingly high percentage. Furthermore, the percentage of students who find the removal of flyers and advertisements or the shouting down of a speaker on campus as acceptable to some degree are both fairly high at around 70%. Such figures are concerning, even if a notable portion of the students are saying such behaviors are “rarely” acceptable, because they suggest that among current college students there is a fair degree of hostility towards the expression of controversial or unpopular viewpoints.



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