A survey of UW-Madison undergraduates indicates significant numbers of them believe government should be allowed to punish or restrict speech that is hateful, offensive or false. More than half said government should be able to restrict the speech of racially insensitive speech.
The findings add to existing evidence that younger people have a poor understanding of and respect for the First Amendment and underscore the need for UW-Madison to better explain its value, according to the UW-Madison Tommy G. Thompson Center on Public Leadership, which conducted the survey of 530 undergraduates along with the UW Survey Center.
“These results show that many students find it difficult to distinguish between, on the one hand, the moral concerns of speech or activities that are contested or even detestable and, on the other, the long-run value derived from free speech and religious liberty,” the survey authors said in a statement. The survey also gauged respondents’ views on religious freedom.
“Overall the responses (the survey) elicits do indeed raise genuine concerns that are consistent with the rise of cancel culture in America and higher education more generally,” said UW-Madison political science professor emeritus Donald Downs, who was not involved in the survey.
The First Amendment to the U.S. Constitution guarantees freedom of religion, speech and the press, as well as the rights to “peaceably” assemble and petition the government.
Opposition to certain kinds of hateful or offensive speech was especially pronounced among females and liberals, according to survey results, with 75% of female respondents, for example, but only 47% of males agreeing that government should be able to punish hate speech.
In a statement, university spokesman Greg Bump said the university believes “strongly in the rights to free speech and expression provided in the First Amendment” and “has a legacy of promoting free and open expression.”
The Thompson Center offers a handful of suggestions for ways the university could improve students’ understanding of and appreciation for the First Amendment, including requiring students to receive instruction in it similar to the way students are required to take three credits in ethnic studies to graduate.
University departments could also be required to include First Amendment-relevant topics in their courses, or the university “could also engage in a more exhaustive First Amendment training for all incoming freshman and transfer students.”
Bump said there are no plans for mandatory First Amendment training.
Matthew Mitnick, chair of UW-Madison student government, Associated Students of Madison, did not respond to requests for comment. Jacob Broehm, ASM press officer, said the group has no position on the survey’s findings.
“It is true that liberals are more in favor of limiting some aspects of free speech in instances that result in hate speech and misinformation, as conservatives favor less limiting of free speech,” he said. “I believe that students on the UW-Madison campus are not immune to these preferences in our country, and it is of course a growing concern.”
Howard Schweber, a UW-Madison political science professor, said his students have been “eager and willing to make themselves heard,” no matter their political persuasion. He pointed to what he saw as problems with the survey’s construction, including its conflation of “hate speech,” for which there is no specific definition, with “abusive or threatening speech,” which the “government is able to punish under the First Amendment.”
He also said that the time period in which the survey was conducted matters.
“Research has found that in general people are less supportive of free speech principles during times of great stress or insecurity,” he said. “That certainly characterizes the present environment.”
Ryan Owens, also a political science professor and director of the Thompson Center, said the survey used a well-established definition of hate speech and that every member of the center’s Faculty Advisory Committee vetted and approved the questions.
“Students knew what they were talking about when they looked at this,” he said of the survey. He also said the First Amendment means nothing if it fails in turbulent times.
Downs said he was grateful the survey was conducted and that the “biggest problem is ignorance of First Amendment principles, more than disagreement with them.” He said past students gained more “thoughtful and informed opinions” as they learned more about the law.
Questions over free speech are not new to UW-Madison, where students and faculty have long leaned left.
The university was a leader in the “speech code” movement of the 1980s, when universities adopted rules against speech or other types of expression on campus that could be perceived as discriminatory, insensitive or racist but were otherwise protected by the First Amendment.
A federal court struck down UW-Madison’s student speech code in 1991, and the UW-Madison Faculty Senate rescinded the faculty code in 1999.
More recently, the university’s initiative to respond to incidents of bias has drawn criticism from some who say the system can be used to inform on people for saying things the informants don’t like.
Since the deadly riot at the U.S. Capitol last week, Twitter, Facebook and other social media companies have banned President Donald Trump and other users who spread misinformation online, and tech giants Google and Apple have removed social media site Parler, which is popular with right-wing conspiracy theorists, from their app stores.
Conservatives have long complained that tech giants are biased against them, but as private companies, they are free to ban or limit user-generated content.
Owens said the intent of the survey was not to normalize hateful or offensive speech, but to hash out questions about speech in the context of its First Amendment protection.
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