Free Speech: Where Ideology and Group Interests Collide

By Sarah MacKenzie and Paul Djupe

Free speech is one of those topics on college campuses that can cause just as much of a stir as observing your one uncle’s reaction to his favorite football team losing. It’s messy and sometimes can be frightening. The controversy that can come from speech on a collegiate platform is immense and that’s why it is important to take a closer look at what is actually going on amidst the frenzy.

Some of the most relevant situations involving free speech on college campuses came to head during the early years of the Trump Administration – far right figures and groups felt emboldened by Trump and sought speaking engagements on college campuses across the US. This was easier at state institutions since they are public spaces and speakers have access by law since they are government entities. But private schools were not immune. If you’re curious, here’s a list of university-related free speech incidents.

The debate boils down to this: should universities be unfettered free speech zones or should they place restrictions on what can be said to protect minorities from hate-filled speech? It spills over to personal actions, too: If universities won’t take a stand, should students take action to disrupt speech they find offensive?

We surveyed Denison students about these concerns back in the spring and they are not united. [for the full question wording, see this note]. While a good number are on the fence (25%), nearly equal amounts agree (36%) and disagree (38%) that universities should limit controversial speakers. Only a slim majority (52%) think universities should be free speech zones. But students are more united about how to treat such speakers. The vast majority (83%) do not agree that students should disrupt controversial speakers, and only 6 percent believe it is acceptable to use violence to stop a controversial speaker (that’s still 138 students – a pretty sizable group). It’s interesting to note that these are almost exactly the same results obtained from Denison students in 2017 at the peak of the “free speech crisis” on campuses.

That suggests that something more foundational might be at work shaping these views. Objectionable speech often targets minorities, so it is no surprise to find that women are more likely to favor limits on speech than men as shown below. But not much more. Women are more likely to agree that the college should limit controversial speakers and are less likely to agree that universities should be free speech zones. But men and women equally disagree that it is acceptable to disrupt speakers on campus.

Much greater gaps are found by race. Not surprisingly, nonwhites are more likely to agree that the college should limit controversial speakers – aka “no-platforming” – and are less likely to agree that universities should be free speech zones. Nonwhites are also much more likely to agree that violence is acceptable (13% agree versus 4% of whites).

The differences between men and women are wholly explained by the ideological divide. Women are more liberal than men on campus and liberals are quite a bit more likely to favor limits on controversial speech. The gender gap in free speech attitudes disappears once we compare liberal men to liberal women, conservative men to conservative women. Women are very slightly more supportive of limits on speech overall, but that difference is not statistically significant.

What about race? Are racial gaps similarly explained by ideological differences?

That would be a no. There is effectively no difference in free speech attitudes by nonwhites across the ideological spectrum – see below. Conservative nonwhites have the same stance, on average, as liberal nonwhites. Liberals of whatever racial background agree that there should be limits on controversial speakers, which means that the only group that stands out with different opinions is conservative whites, who roundly disagree with speech limits. Perhaps it’s notable that there are no “strong conservative” nonwhites in the sample to compare with whites.

Free speech politics has involved more than just race, of course, but the politics of the Trump Administration has sure emboldened white supremacists and others with conservative racial issue views. Expression of those views on campuses (and elsewhere) have created the flashpoints that have made national news. One lingering question, then, is what happens to this debate if the administration changes partisan hands. Debates about where to draw lines about where free speech protections end won’t go away, but perhaps the drive to test them so publicly and widely will subside. If not, perhaps our college campuses are in for an even more intense next term filled with all-consuming, controversial speakers.

Sarah MacKenzie is a senior Political Science major from Denver, Colorado. If she is not talking about climate change she is urging the people around her to vote in the 2020 election.

Paul A. Djupe is a local cyclist who coincidentally has taught social science research methods and political science at Denison for millenia. He started a few years ago in a bid to subsidize collective action. He’s on Twitter and you should be too, along with your president.

Note: The four statements were worded this way (each with response options ranging from strongly agree to strongly disagree):

  1. It is acceptable that a student group opposed to a speaker on campus uses violence to prevent the speaker from speaking.
  2. It is acceptable for a student group opposed to the speaker to disrupt the speech by loudly and repeatedly shouting so that the audience cannot hear the speaker.
  3. College campuses should be considered free speech zones, where maximal free speech rights are respected – the speaker should be allowed to speak unimpeded.
  4. It is the college’s responsibility to create a positive learning environment for all students by prohibiting the controversial speaker from attending.

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