Poll: 78 Percent of College Students Want to Restrict 'Threatening' Ideas

Majority also back Trump order that withholds taxpayer funding from schools that restrict speech

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May 5, 2020

More than three-in-four college students want "safe spaces" on their campuses that are free of "threatening actions, ideas, or conversations," even as a majority support President Trump's threat to withhold taxpayer dollars from universities that restrict speech, according to a new poll.

While 97 percent of college students believe that free speech is an essential pillar of American democracy, a significant majority of students also support policies to restrict specific types of speech on campus. The poll, conducted by Gallup and the Knight Foundation, found that 78 percent of students support "safe spaces" where threatening ideas and conversations would be barred. More than 80 percent favor the establishment of a "free-speech zone" where preapproved protests and the distribution of literature are permitted.

In response to growing concerns about academic freedom on campuses, the Trump administration ordered all federally funded universities to protect free speech on campus. University administrators denounced the move, with the president of Columbia University calling it a "transparent exercise in politics." Most students support the Trump administration's decision, however, with 58 percent of pupils supporting a ban on federal funding for colleges that do not protect free-speech rights.

The survey—which polled 3,319 college students, aged 18 to 24, from 24 different schools—also found that 63 percent of students feel that their campus climates deter students from expressing themselves openly, up from 54 percent in 2016. The students say that conservative students experience greater barriers to openly expressing their opinion in public, with Democrats feeling more comfortable than Republicans about sharing dissenting views in class.

Evette Alexander, director of learning and impact at the Knight Foundation, said that survey respondents felt greater pressure from their peers, rather than their professors, about voicing their dissenting opinions.

"We understand that [pressure] mostly comes from peers," Alexander said. "The professors would be open to hearing different thoughts, but the people who feel uncomfortable usually have a point of view that doesn't align with the most vocal students in the room. And so they feel like by speaking up, they would expose themselves to retaliation."

The poll's findings are reflective of the climate of many American campuses where dissenters are finding it difficult to voice their opinions. Data compiled by the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education have logged seven attempts to disinvite speakers from universities in 2020. The targeted speakers include a wide range of figures, from conservative commentator Ben Shapiro to Hong Kong activist Joshua Wong. Students have also occasionally mounted violent protests to shut down outside speakers, as Middlebury College students did when the school hosted Charles Murray, a libertarian social scientist, in 2017.

Conservative student groups see a direct link between the push for safe spaces and censorship on campus. Spencer Brown, a spokesman for Young America's Foundation, a conservative activism group, said that universities often create safe spaces explicitly to shut down viewpoints that break from liberal orthodoxy.

"In almost every case, safe spaces are set up in response to a conservative speaker visiting campus," he said. "The powers that be at a given school issue trigger warnings to spook students, offer them a safe space to hide from harmless words, and ensure that the coddled minds of impressionable youth don't hear a conservative idea that, God forbid, might make them reconsider the leftist ideas they're all too often force-fed in the classroom."

Students have an expansive understanding of speech that should be prohibited in a campus environment. While 88 percent of students support restrictions on the use of offensive racial slurs, 71 percent of students also want restrictions on "costumes that stereotype certain racial or ethnic groups." Slightly less than half of students also want to restrict the display of pornographic posters from dorm rooms and 17 percent of pupils would impose restrictions on the distribution of Christian pamphlets on campus.

While students support specific policies restricting free speech, most students say they support the principle of free speech and the right to express political views on campus. More than four-in-five students prefer a campus environment that exposes students to all types of speech while 19 percent want to prohibit "offensive or biased" speech.