Last fall, the Tommy G. Thompson Center on Public Leadership and the University of Wisconsin Survey Center surveyed 530 students currently enrolled at the University of Wisconsin, Madison, about their views on freedom of speech and religious freedom. The new report suggests that many students at the University of Wisconsin do not understand First Amendment protected speech. In addition, a remarkable proportion of the students surveyed report substantial opposition to the principles of the First Amendment.
As I have noted in the past, campus-specific data on students' attitudes toward free speech has been incredibly valuable. This blog post provides a brief summary of the Thompson Center report and then compares this new data with FIRE data obtained from the University of Wisconsin last year as part of the Free speech rankings 2020.
The Thompson Center report
The findings discussed in the Thompson report fall into five categories:
- Student views on “incitement to hatred”;
- Student views of offensive or uncomfortable speech;
- Students' opinions about the media;
- Students' opinions about forced speech; and,
- Student views on religious freedom.
Two statistically significant findings were consistently observed throughout most of the study: female students and liberal students were more in favor of speech impairment in each domain than male students and conservative students, respectively. For example, when students were asked if "the government should be able to punish hate speech", 75% of women agreed 'strongly', 'somewhat' or 'slightly', compared with 47% of the men.
In addition, the students surveyed showed it classic find of supporting free speech when asked about it abstractly, as 88% of students agreed "strongly," "somewhat," or "slightly" that "one person should not prevent someone else from speaking because they have vision." Likewise, only a small percentage of the students were in favor of speech restrictions for well-known political groups such as liberals (3%) and conservatives (5%).
But when details about the content of speech were also included, support for speech restrictions increased. For example, 40% of students thought that the government said the speech of & # 39; climate deniers & # 39; had to limit. The support for speech impairments was even greater when the speech in question addressed issues of race. More specifically, 55% of students supported the restrictions of the government's speech on "Holocaust deniers" and 53% supported restrictions on "racially insensitive persons." Again, female and liberal students were more in favor of speech impairment than their male and conservative counterparts, respectively.
The one exception to the rather consistent pattern of findings showing greater support for speech impairment among female students and liberal students compared to men and conservatives came up when students were asked about the news media. Specifically, an approximately equal percentage of liberal (31%) and conservative (34%) students said that "the government should be able to take action against news media that publish biased content." But again, the percentage of female students (42%) who were in favor of speech impairments on the news media was greater than the percentage of male students (24%) who did.
The University of Wisconsin Free Speech Ranking in 2020
The conclusions of the Thompson Center report are disturbing. Undergraduate students at the University of Wisconsin flagship campus do not seem to fully appreciate the importance of the First Amendment in American society and, in some cases, appear to be quite hostile to the principles of First Amendment. These conclusions also suggest that the University of Wisconsin's relatively low ranking in the College Free Speech Rankings 2020 is appropriate. The table below summarizes the University of Wisconsin overall ranking and the university's ranking on each subcomponent:
|All in all||Openness||Tolerance||Administrative support||Self-expression||Fire ratings|
As seen above, the University of Wisconsin fares poorly on almost every part of FIRE's free speech rankings. Self-expression, consisting of student responses as to whether they have ever personally felt that they could not express their views on a topic because of the way students, a professor, or the administration would respond, is the only part that the University of Wisconsin gets right in does.
However, before this is seen as cause for optimism, the high score in this area may be due to a fairly politically homogeneous campus. In both studies of University of Wisconsin students, an overwhelming majority of them were identified as politically liberal. Specifically, in the Thompson Center survey, 75% of the students were identified as "very liberal" (48%) or "somewhat liberal" (27%) on social issues. Likewise, 64% of the students in the FIRE survey identified as "extremely liberal" (10%), "liberal" (38%) or "slightly liberal" (16%). In contrast, in the Thompson Center survey, only 57 students, out of 530 respondents, referred to themselves as "very conservative" (38 in total) or "somewhat conservative" (19 in total) on social issues. In the FIRE survey, the number of conservative students in the sample was the same: 57; 39 of these students identified as "somewhat conservative", 15 as "conservative" and only 3 identified as "extremely conservative". In addition, 79% of conservative students at the University of Wisconsin in the FIRE survey reported that they were unable to express their views on a topic because of the way students, a professor, or the administration would respond, compared to only 47% of the liberal students. .
To be clear, there is not much overlap between the questions on the two surveys. The Thompson Center report focuses more on students 'views of the First Amendment in American society, while the FIRE 2020 Campus Free Speech Survey focuses more closely on students' attitudes toward freedom of speech and speech on their own campus. Still, like the Thompson Center's 2020 Freedom of Speech Surveys, the FIRE surveys asked students about their support or opposition to speech restrictions for controversial speakers. Of the eight speakers that FIRE was asked about, four are relevant to this discussion:
- A speaker who would promote the idea that some racial groups are less intelligent than others.
- A speaker who would promote the idea that Black Lives Matter is a hate group.
- A speaker who would promote the idea that all whites are racist.
- A speaker who would promote the idea that censoring the news media is necessary.
When a University of Wisconsin campus-specific analysis is performed on this data from FIRE & # 39; s 2020 Free Speech Campus Survey, female and liberal students emerge as less supportive of free speech, as in the Thompson Center Research. There is one exception to this conclusion: less conservative students (30%) supported the admission of a speaker on campus who would promote the idea that all whites are racist compared to liberal students (37%).
These comparisons also show that while male students and conservative students at the University of Wisconsin tend to be more supportive of free speech, this support is not particularly strong. In particular, the percentage of male students who "strongly" or "somewhat" support each of the four controversial speakers does not exceed 40%. This also applies to conservative students.
Finally, the Thompson Center asked students if they agreed that "public institutions should withdraw guest speaker invitations when the speaker's comments were likely to offend someone," and found that 35% of students agreed with this sentiment. Again, significantly more female and liberal students agreed with this sentiment, compared to male and conservative students. When it comes to their own campus, it turns out that students are even more likely to support a reluctance. In the FIRE 2020 Free Speech Survey, only 31% of students at the University of Wisconsin said it was never acceptable for students to yell or try to prevent a speaker from speaking on campus. Again, female and liberal students were less supportive of free speech than their male and conservative counterparts.
The findings of both studies are consistent with the conclusion that student support for freedom of speech at the University of Wisconsin is lukewarm at best. Like the general public, students support the principles of the First Amendment when asked in the abstract. But when specific goals are presented that are more likely to be considered offensive or even hateful by the majority of students, this support drops, sometimes suddenly. Moreover, while male students and conservative students have consistently been more supportive of the principles of the First Amendment, even their support leaves something to be desired. Considering that support for unpopular speakers' right to speak is where the rubber meets the road when it comes to the principle of free speech, it is clear that the University of Wisconsin, like so many others, could do a lot more to educate its students about this essential part of living in a diverse and pluralistic democracy.