News & Politics

Most College Students Clueless About the First Amendment

Last week at Columbia University, conservative pundit Tommy Robinson attempted to give a speech on mass immigration in Europe. Instead, the event devolved into chaos. Students consistently shouted down Robinson, effectively preventing him from speaking as he Skyped into the campus auditorium from the United Kingdom. He gave up on trying to speak and instead fielded questions from protesters.

“This is our free speech, this is our First Amendment right,” repeated some of the protesters as they shouted over Robinson.

It was clear that many students had a warped understanding of the First Amendment.

To be fair, an argument could be made that, because Robinson spoke before students at a private university, First Amendment protections might not apply. But student protesters didn’t raise the specter of that concern. Indeed, their only way of justifying their actions was to claim that they were expressing their “free speech” rights in shouting down Robinson.

That is not free speech, but in fact an abridgment of someone else’s rights.

This anti-free speech behavior is increasingly common at private and public schools alike, as documented by websites like The College Fix and Campus Reform. In an essay for National Review, public policy researcher Stanley Kurtz dubbed this the “Year of the Shout-Down.” He likewise noted that protesters tend to justify their actions with chants about the First Amendment.

Do protesters, and students at large, really understand the First Amendment?

No, they don’t. In a newly published study, the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education (FIRE) found that only 46% of college students understand that “hate speech” is indeed protected by the First Amendment. Of the 54% of students who did not know, 29% falsely believe the First Amendment doesn’t cover hate speech, and 25% just did not know.

Further, when asked if the First Amendment should cover hate speech, nearly half (48%) said “no.”

Perhaps this isn’t a surprise, since nearly 13% of survey respondents actively associated hate speech with violence, according to FIRE.

Most of these students write that hate speech “encourages” violence against a group or individual, but some write that this speech may “incite [or] glorify violence against a group” … a few students suggest that hate speech itself is actually a form of violence.

One student wrote that hate speech “constitutes violence. It goes beyond voicing an opinion about an issue and instead threatens the existence of others.”

The majority of students (56%) also agree that colleges should be able to disinvite speakers after they’ve already been invited if other students object to the potential speakers’ views. Not surprisingly, liberal students are significantly more likely to support a disinvitation than conservative and Republican students:

There is a 40 percentage point ideological divide in attitudes toward disinvitations: 78% of very liberal students and 38% of very conservative students support the withdrawal of a guest speaker’s invitation in some instances.

While most students admitted to supporting disinvitations, only a handful of students admitted that they might attempt to block a speech from taking place, which is what happened last week during Tommy Robinson’s speech at Columbia.

According to the study, one percent of students admitted that they might use violence to prevent a speaker from talking, two percent said they might make noise during the event, and four percent admitted that they might tear event flyers down.

The survey was based on a survey of 1,250 college students, jointly organized by FIRE and YouGov, an independent polling research firm.

Later this month, the Columbia University College Republicans will host Mike Cernovich, who intends to speak on the role that media played in the last election cycle. Led by Mistee Denson, a graduate student at Columbia, the Southern Poverty Law Center chapter at Columbia actively hopes to get the event cancelled. As Columbia University officials and the school’s First Amendment Institute have been mum about the growing hostility towards free speech on campus, it’s likely that students will try to shout down Cernovich, too.