Some 78 percent of students believe colleges are obliged to provide “safe spaces” where students can be protected from “threatening” actions, ideas, or conversations, according to Gallup and the Knight Foundation, which published their joint ‘First Amendment on Campus 2020 Report’ on Tuesday.
At the same time, 68 percent of poll respondents said they believe free speech is “extremely important” to democracy. A robust 81 percent support a “campus environment where students are exposed to all types of speech, even if they may find it offensive.”
It’s unclear how these numbers harmonize with the overwhelming support for “safe spaces,” especially given that “nearly three quarters [of survey respondents] believe colleges should not be able to restrict expression of political views that are upsetting or offensive to certain groups.”
Evette Alexander, director of learning and impact at the Knight Foundation, observed that students were more affected by the opinions of their peers than of their professors, noting that, while the “professors would be open to hearing different thoughts,” dissident students fear that “by speaking up, they would expose themselves to retaliation” from peers looking dimly on their views.
However, the majority of students (78 percent) believe colleges should crack down on racial stereotypes, and 71 percent agreed they should restrict stereotypical costumes. Both numbers had jumped nearly 10 percent since 2016.
Even as a growing proportion of students reported that they had felt uncomfortable or unsafe because of something they had heard on campus – 38 percent, an increase of 15 percent since 2017 – a growing number were also concerned about the security of free speech on campus.
While 65 percent of respondents claimed free speech rights on campus were secure, nearly as many – 63 percent – suggested the “climate on their campus deters students from expressing themselves openly.”
And even though nearly all respondents believe free speech is, if not “extremely important,” at least “very” or “moderately” important – with less than one percent claiming it is “not at all important” – the polling shows that the perception of that fundamental freedom is less secure compared to previous years. Student perception of freedom to petition the government, freedom of the press, freedom to assemble peacefully, and even freedom of religion have also declined slightly since 2016, when the polling began.
The poll was conducted in late 2019 “in partnership with the Charles Koch Foundation and the Stanton Foundation,” surveying some 3,000 college students with an oversampling of historically black colleges and universities (HBCUs).