That Was a False Alarm on Millennials and Free Speech

Demonstrators listen to speakers during a rally on the campus of Saint Louis University on October 13, 2014 in St Louis, Missouri.
Photo: Scott Olson/Getty Images

Last week, I wrote about a new Pew poll that showed that 40 percent of millennials would be in favor of government bans on speech offensive to minority groups. Many people took this as a dire sign that kids these days are Nae Nae–ing themselves straight into an authoritarian future, especially given all the recent talk about young people’s coddling and fragility.

Here’s Charlie Nash of the right-wing website Breitbart offering some in-depth sociological analysis of the numbers:

This is simply the result of what most journalists on the right have been saying for years. Freedom of speech is under attack, not by direct legislation, but by erasing the value of freedom of expression in schools and colleges. Just 10 to 20 years ago, college campuses were places defined by their open debates, easy access to learn new things, and free student discussion. College campuses are now defined by “safe spaces,” authoritarian student unions, and bourgeoisie middle-class-but-I’m-down-with-the-poor protesters. Students of today do not want a free discussion if anything said could hurt someone’s feelings (unless you’re straight, male, and white; then fire away).

Just 10 to 20 years ago” there was freedom on campus! A terrible situation indeed.

I wasn’t immune to the hype myself. While I did caution in my write-up that the number needed to be taken in context given that the question had never been asked in this way before and there was therefore nothing to compare the result against, it still jumped out at me as surprisingly high — that’s why I posted about it.

I was wrong; it shouldn’t have jumped out at me. A bit of digging into past poll results shows that this just wasn’t an unusual result. Yes, broad attitudes over free speech change over time — more on this in a bit — but there’s a general pattern to how Americans answer these questions: They’ve shown over and over again that they favor free speech in theory, when asked about it in the broadest terms, but they also tend to be fairly enthusiastic about government bans on forms of speech they find particularly offensive (what’s considered offensive, of course, changes with the times). On this subject, millennials are right in line with reams of past polling, and it would be wrong to hold up last week’s results as an example of anything other than an extremely broad tendency that’s existed for a long time.

Before jumping into a few past numbers, it’s important to note that you really can’t compare directly between different polls, since different polls have different sampling procedures and question wording. This is a cardinal-sin no-no. But that doesn’t mean you can’t check to see whether the result from last week was a crazy outlier suggestive of new attitudes about free speech. If the vast majority of past polls asking similar types of questions had found that, say, only 15 percent of Americans are in favor of banning offensive speech, then we could at least say, “Hmmm, something’s going on here with millennials.”

But that isn’t the case, as numerous examples show. In March, for example, the Washington Post reported on a decades-long trend in the General Social Survey: Over time, when asked whether they think a variety of figures — atheists, militarists, and so on — should be “allowed to give a speech in [their] community,” Americans have gotten increasingly tolerant. The one exception highlighted by the Post? A speaker discussing African-Americans’ genetic inferiority. There, the figure hasn’t really budged since 1976 — it’s been consistently the case that 60 percent of Americans believe such speech should be allowed, meaning 40 percent don’t believe it should be or aren’t sure. Now, this is a survey of American adults rather than just young people, but still: same very general ballpark, and strikingly stable since the 1970s.

Maybe it’s the question phrasing, though — maybe these respondents don’t want a racist speaker in their neighborhood, but also don’t want the government to ban that speaker at all. Alas, there’s plenty of other polling and research showing that approval of more general bans on speech is something of a national tradition.

Here’s then–Washington Post polling director Richard Morin writing in 1998:

In 1938, the American Institute of Public Opinion surveyed a national sample of American adults. The institute asked respondents whether they believed in free speech or not, and of course 96 percent said they did.

But in subsequent questions, it became uncomfortably clear that Americans would place many limits on free speech. Fewer than four in 10 – 38 percent – said they would allow “radicals” to meet and speak. Even fewer would grant those rights to Communists or fascists.

Likewise, during the height of the Red Scare in the 1950s, Harvard sociologist Samuel Stouffer conducted a national poll to measure support for free speech. Two-thirds said a Communist should not be allowed to speak. And nearly as many, 60 percent, said an atheist should not be allowed to speak.

Or take an AP article from 1990 — accessed via Nexis, so no link — with the headline “Americans apply ‘double standard’ to free speech rights”:

Americans overwhelmingly believe the Constitution guarantees their individual freedom of expression, but more than one-fourth say that protection shouldn’t apply to the arts or the media, according to a private survey [of 1,500 adults].

Robert O’Neil, founding director of the Thomas Jefferson Center for the Protection of Free Expression, said Friday that the center’s survey spotlighted “an appalling gap” in public understanding of free speech and equally protected freedom of the press.

“We found alarming evidence of a double standard, a sense that the 1st Amendment protects what the speaker wants to say, but not so clearly the views of others,” O’Neil said, releasing the survey results at a news conference on the steps of the Jefferson Memorial.

While 90 percent of Americans believe the government has no business telling them what to say, nearly 59 percent said the government should have some power of censorship, according to the center’s survey.

In addition, more than half said the government has the right to ban the sale of recordings that favor drug use or broadcasting of sexually explicit lyrics; 84 percent favored mandatory labeling of recorded songs containing such lyrics.

The survey said between 25 percent and 30 percent of those questioned believed the 1st Amendment’s guarantees of free speech didn’t cover art works, films, music, radio, cable and network television, plays, newspapers or photographs. [emphasis mine]

Last week’s poll wasn’t even an outlier if we restrict the question to young people. Kathleen Weldon of the Roper Center for Public Opinion Research at Cornell sent me an age breakdown from a 1999 American Attitudes About the First Amendment survey in which respondents were asked whether they agreed with the statement “People should be allowed to use words in public that might be offensive to racial groups.” Combining the “mildly disagree” and “strongly disagree” categories, 75 percent of respondents in the 18-to-29 age bracket disagreed. (Let’s do a Charlie Nash callback: “Just 10 to 20 years ago, college campuses were places defined by their open debates, easy access to learn new things, and free student discussion.”)

This is a far-from-comprehensive look at past polling numbers on free-speech questions, and I’m sure there are interesting patterns to be discovered, some of which might reveal noteworthy things about young people’s attitudes and how they have changed over the years. But on the specific question of whether people should be alarmed that 40 percent of millennials are in favor of government censorship of offensive speech, there’s very little to suggest this is an unusual result.

A False Alarm on Millennials and Free Speech