Rampell: College student’s attitude to free speech canary in mine

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Catherine Rampell is an opinion columnist at The Washington Post.

Here’s the problem with suggesting that upsetting speech warrants “safe spaces,” or otherwise conflating mere words with physical assault: If speech is violence, then violence becomes a justifiable response to speech.

Just ask college students. One-fifth of undergrads now say it’s acceptable to use physical force to silence a speaker who makes “offensive and hurtful statements.”

That’s one finding from a disturbing new survey of students conducted by John Villasenor, a Brookings Institution senior fellow and UCLA professor.

In August, motivated by concerns about the “narrowing window of permissible topics” for discussion on campuses, Villasenor conducted a nationwide survey of 1,500 undergraduate students at four-year colleges. Financial support for the survey was provided by the Charles Koch Foundation, which Villasenor said had no involvement in designing, administering or analyzing the questionnaire; as of this writing, the foundation had also not seen his results.

Many of Villasenor’s questions were designed to gauge students’ understanding of the First Amendment. Colleges, after all, pay a lot of lip service to “freedom of speech,” despite high-profile examples of civil-liberty-squelching on campus. The survey suggests that this might not be due to hypocrisy so much as a misunderstanding of what the First Amendment actually entails.

For example, when students were asked whether the First Amendment protects “hate speech,” 4 in 10 said no. This is, of course, incorrect. Speech promoting hatred — or perceived as promoting hatred — may be abhorrent, but it is nonetheless constitutionally protected.

The most chilling findings, however, involved how students think repugnant speech should be dealt with.

Villasenor offered a hypothetical that may sound familiar to those who recall recent fracases at California State University at Los Angeles, Middlebury College, Claremont McKenna College and other institutions:

Let’s say a public university hosts a “very controversial speaker,” one “known for making offensive and hurtful statements.” Would it be acceptable for a student group to disrupt the speech “by loudly and repeatedly shouting so that the audience cannot hear the speaker”?

Astonishingly, half said that snuffing out upsetting speech — rather than rebutting or ignoring it — is appropriate. Democrats were more likely than Republicans to find this response acceptable (62 percent to 39 percent), and men were more likely than women (57 percent to 47 percent).

Hostile toward free speech

It gets even worse.

Respondents were also asked if it would be acceptable for a student group to use violence to prevent that same controversial speaker from talking. Here, 19 percent said yes.

None of this bodes well for the alt-right’s Berkeley Free Speech Week events next week.

Judging from the lineup — which includes professional troll Milo Yiannopoulos and Pizzagate conspiracy theorist Mike Cernovich — the apparent goal of this event is not to help students face hard truths or grapple with thoughtful conservative viewpoints. It’s to say disgusting things in an attempt to provoke liberals into doing something stupid, surrendering any claim to the moral high ground.

Lefties can do more to call out threats to civil liberties perpetrated by their ideological allies. And colleges can do more to promote debate. But many of Villasenor’s results show that the right also is open to shutting down speech.

What’s more, colleges alone are not to blame for these findings. Other data suggest that freshmen are arriving on campus with more intolerant attitudes toward free speech than their predecessors did, and that Americans of all ages have become hostile toward basic civil and political liberties.

Colleges provide a crucible for America’s increasingly strained attitudes toward free discourse. But they are just the canaries in the coal mine.