Free Expression on Campus: Presidents Respond to 2018 Knight-Gallup Survey of College Students

By Laurie Arnston, Jennifer Crandall, and Lorelle Espinosa

The Knight Foundation has released an updated version of its survey on how college students see the First Amendment — and what they think about the relationship between inclusion and free expression. Seven college presidents and chancellors respond to the results.

In 1964, students protesting the University of California at Berkeley’s ban on political activity launched the first student movement of the 1960s to garner worldwide attention. Known as the Free Speech Movement, it culminated in a sit-in by 1,000 students — 773 of whom were arrested — the removal of the campus administration, and an expansion of student rights to use campus facilities for political activity and debate. The movement soon spread to other campuses.

Some 50 years later, a series of student protests at the University of Missouri also commanded widespread attention. Months of escalating tension over several high-profile racial incidents led to protestors building an encampment on the quad, a hunger strike by a graduate student, and a boycott by the football team. Like the Berkeley students before them, the Mizzou protestors issued a series of demands to the administration. The president and chancellor resigned. And the movement soon spread to other campuses.

The relationship between these two movements and their goals, demands, and outcomes is complex. Some see these flashpoints as part of a larger continuum amid an evolving political context and changing educational landscape. Others see a crisis of speech on campuses nationwide. Still others resist the need to paint strict dichotomies, focusing instead on the interconnected values of diversity, inclusion, and free expression. Interestingly, many students of the 1960s are now leading the nation’s colleges and universities.

Unpacking these issues necessitates a broad understanding of where students stand. With this need in mind, the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation in 2016 provided a window into student beliefs and attitudes on the First Amendment. An updated version of this survey was released at ACE2018, revealing dramatic shifts in how students perceive the First Amendment, and covering new ground on how students understand the relationship between free expression and diversity and inclusion.

We asked a sampling of ACE member presidents and chancellors to respond to the Knight survey results. This is what they had to say.

Free expression and inclusion are not mutually exclusive, but the tension is real

The report reveals that although seven in 10 students in the new survey favor an open environment allowing all types of speech, a sizeable portion (29 percent) favor a positive environment that limits offensive speech, which is in line with 2016 findings. When asked which was more important, students narrowly prioritized diversity and inclusion over free speech, 53 to 46 percent. The higher education leaders we spoke with said these findings for the most part reflect what has been happening on their campuses.

“The fact that students strongly support both free speech and creating an inclusive environment on campus is consistent with my experience at Bates,” said Clayton Spencer, president of Bates College in Maine. “The fact that, when forced to choose between these two values, having an inclusive environment wins out by a small margin would also probably be true at Bates. But the construction of many of the questions [in the survey] creates an opposition between the values of free speech and inclusion that runs throughout the survey and is exacerbated by the questions that use the term ‘positive’ environment in opposition to ‘free speech,’ thus potentially biasing the responses.”

Dorothy Leland, chancellor at the University of California at Merced, agreed that the findings resonate at her institution, although students’ “commitment to free expression may be stronger in the abstract than in reality.”

“Recently, a group of students displayed signs promoting messages that were clearly intended to create an unwelcome environment for our nearly 600 undocumented students — disturbing to many of us, because we consider all students to be part of our family, and messages like these do not coincide with our Principles of Community,” she said. “However, UC Merced remains committed to enabling our undocumented students to pursue their education, but we are also committed to allowing the free expression of all views and the free and open exchange of ideas.”

University of Richmond (VA) President Ronald Crutcher believes students are not intentionally undermining the First Amendment, but rather that they do not understand the nuances of the protections it covers.

“Our students may understand that obscenity, defamation, or speech that incites lawless action are not protected by the First Amendment,” he said. “But can they define a ‘true threat’ or explain the difference between legally slanderous and merely offensive language?”

Many in the media and others have called students who favor limits on offensive speech “coddled” — the infamous campus snowflake — or guilty of undermining the First Amendment. Some of the presidents we contacted strongly disagreed with this notion, saying that it paints a distorted picture of a generation determined to confront and correct toxic environments.

“I reject the language of “coddled” — it infantilizes the real pain that some speech creates for marginalized communities,” said Leland. “We need to acknowledge that pain and harm, while doing a better job of communicating why painful and harmful speech must nonetheless be protected.”

“The accusation that this generation of students is “coddled” is tremendously unfair,” echoed Howard Gillman, chancellor of the University of California at Irvine. “We have seen this generation challenge prevailing assumptions about a range of issues, including sexual assault and sexual harassment, and they have helped us see that what we took for granted as acceptable is, for them, not acceptable — and they have made our campuses and our society better, as the #MeToo movement is demonstrating.”

However, Walter Kimbrough, president of Dillard University (LA), sees some merit to the critique.

“I lean toward the coddling, but some of that is on higher education,” he said. “I don’t think we’ve been aggressive enough in exposing students to different, uncomfortable, and challenging points of view.”

Higher education needs to do a better job educating students on the role of free expression in an open and diverse society

Exposing students to different points of view is only a part of the overall educational effort presidents and chancellors feel is needed to help students better understand what is at stake in the free speech debate.

“I have learned first-hand, spending hundreds of hours talking to conscientious students over the last three years, that they also have very little basic civic knowledge about the arguments in favor of free speech, or the history of free speech, or the role that free speech has played to advance the interests of marginalized and vulnerable populations,” said Howard Gillman.

President Jonathan Alger of James Madison University (VA) sees colleges and universities as uniquely positioned to foster a learning environment where students both listen to each other and use the tools of “critical thinking and reasoned debate.”

“The challenge for colleges and universities is to teach and model modes of vigorous civil discourse and debate, and to educate students about the value and importance of free speech for individuals of all backgrounds,” he said. “As educators, we must demonstrate that free expression and inclusivity are not mutually exclusive concepts — while emphasizing that history has shown that offensive ideas cannot be suppressed or eliminated with restrictions on speech.”

Beth Stroble, president of Webster University in St. Louis, also advises linking the ideas of free speech and inclusion in education programs, providing “models of how to listen to voices that are overlooked in the traditional media, widening the scope of conversations, and rediscovering the lost arts of compromise and courtesy.”

The current political climate complicates the issue

Howard Gillman pointed out that the modern version of the free speech debate began to emerge in 2015, when Greg Lukianoff and Jonathan Haidt hypothesized that these developments reflected “The Coddling of the American Mind,” in a piece for The Atlantic. In March 2016, Conor Friedersdorf would summarize, also in The Atlantic,The Glaring Evidence that Free Speech is Threatened on Campus.” President Obama’s commencement addresses that same year would advise students to let people speak even if students strongly disagreed with the message (read his addresses to Howard University, Rutgers, and U.S. Air Force Academy graduates from 2016).

In the two years since, the issue of free expression campus has become amplified — especially with the 2016 election pushing political polarization to an all-time high. The Knight survey found the biggest change between the 2016 and 2018 surveys to be a 21 percentage-point decline (from 81 percent to 60 percent) in the belief that freedom of the press is secure, and a nine point decline (from 73 percent to 64 percent) in perceptions that freedom of speech is secure.

“Given all the media attention since 2016 about the crisis of free speech on campuses, it is no surprise that students this year have a deeper sense of the controversy than was the case a few years ago,” said Gillman. He was both surprised and reassured that the “free speech is secure” survey measure only dropped by nine percentage points. Clayton Spencer identified that figure as encouraging, “as it suggests that students are engaged and understand that our democratic institutions cannot be taken for granted.”

“The decline in the perception that freedom of speech is secure seems to mirror the current state of political society,” said Dorothy Leland. “From the left, there is a renewed effort to censor speech that is considered to be politically or morally objectionable. From the right, there is a renewed effort to test the boundaries of free speech and position liberals and the left as free speech opponents.”

Jonathan Alger did not find the results unexpected either, especially in an era where terms like “fake news” are used routinely by political leaders to describe media coverage with which they disagree — and where media outlets reflect and in some cases reinforce the overall polarization.

“Political leaders and media commentators routinely demonize speakers with different points of view,” he said. “When you add to the mix a more generalized hostility toward expertise of any kind, it is no wonder that students perceive freedom of the press and of speech to be under siege.”

“Our political, cultural, civic, and educational leaders will need to work hard to provide models that return us to more respectful and positive communication culture,” said Beth Stroble. “Many of our students see this polarization and react to it negatively. It upsets them and can undercut their confidence in the stability of our system.”

Walter Kimbrough reflected on the finding that students at historically black colleges and universities feel free speech is less secure now than it was two years ago (49 percent say it is secure or very secure, down from 60 percent in 2016).

“Maybe this could be an impression that their speech is being suppressed because conservatives are fighting for unpopular opinions (i.e., white supremacist Richard Spencer). But they lack the historical perspective to see how this has benefitted black students in days past providing forums for the likes of Khalid Muhammad,” he said.

Social media complicates it even more

Eight in 10 of Knight’s survey respondents strongly agreed (43 percent) or agreed (39 percent) that social media has led to an explosion of hate speech. The use of social media on campus, said Ronald Crutcher, is both “a blessing and a curse.”

While it can be a powerful communication tool, social media also “promotes a lack of accountability which can embolden students to say hateful things while masquerading as someone who is shamelessly unidentified,” Crutcher said. “That’s why we’re relieved when apps such as Yik Yak are rejected by our students and shut down.”

But the embrace of anonymous social media sites and apps may also reflect students’ “inability to speak candidly about difficult issues, or to trust the First Amendment,” he continued. “We must empower our students to confidently (and publicly) share and defend their views and provide opportunities for them to practice these skills, so that they learn how their speech will (or will not) be protected.”

“On our own campus,” said Jonathan Alger, “we talk a lot about the importance of engaging in face-to-face interaction with peers and colleagues, since we believe that in-person contact can more likely produce understanding and empathy.”

Beth Stroble, an active user in her own right, is confident in the positive power of social media when used carefully.

“I believe these new channels of communication have further democratized our communications,” she said. “However, we each have a responsibility to ensure the conversations on these new platforms are positive and respectful.”

To download a copy of Free Expression on Campus: What College Students Think About First Amendment Issues, see the Knight Foundation website.

Read the perspectives of students on the state of free expression on college campuses in our series:

Read the key Gallup-Knight survey findings:

Sort through results from The Georgetown Free Speech Tracker