Is this glass half empty or half full? On the one hand, the percentage of students who say that people should be able to express unpopular opinions is up considerably over the past 13 years. When the Knight Foundation first asked that question in 2004, just 83 percent of high-schoolers agreed. Today 91 percent do. I’m going to chalk that up to the fact that many more students use the Internet now than was true back then, and pretty much all of them have said something “unpopular” online at one time or another. In that sense, the ‘Net really could be inculcating stronger respect for speech rights in younger generations. Glass half full!
Or maybe three-quarters full. Check this out:
Good news, although those are some curious trend lines. Among kids, opposition to the idea that the First Amendment goes too far has risen slowly but steadily; among adults, it’s a V-pattern, with a strong spike in opposition since 2014. I can’t think of any obvious explanation for that. Maybe it’s a backlash to high-profile incidents of campus totalitarianism like we saw in Berkeley recently, but that strikes me as too much of a boutique issue to drive this much of a surge among adults. Could it be that the result is an artifact of the election? People are rarely more mindful of the fact that others consider their opinions bad and wrong than they are in the middle of a presidential campaign. Although, in that case, what explains the decline among adults from 2006 to 2011?
Now for the empty part of the glass:
Everything there hangs on the definitions of “offensive” and “bullying,” but unfortunately the Knight Foundation didn’t attempt to clarify. Which is maybe just as well: The responses suggest, at a minimum, that students are very much open to limiting speech rights if they can be convinced that a certain type of speech falls into one of these categories. Is “offensive” speech profanity, sexually explicit language, and other matters of basic decorum, or does “offensive” speech include someone saying, for example, that gay marriage is a violation of natural law? Does “bullying” speech encompass direct threats and little more, or does it include anything that Milo Yiannopoulos happens to say during a campus lecture, as many college-aged liberals seem to believe? There’s a lot of play potentially in these particular legal joints. Worse yet, when the Knight Foundation asked students whether free speech is more important than protecting someone from being offended, just 64 percent said yes — a majority, sure, but not even a two-thirds majority. And support for that proposition varied significantly by race. Among white students, 69 percent said freedom of speech trumped protection from offense. Among Latino and Asian students, it was 10 points lower. Among black students, just 50 percent agreed. Unless minorities shift towards the majority position over time, it stands to reason that free speech as a core cultural value will lose some of its preeminence to “protecting the vulnerable” as the country’s demographics change. But then, that much was already clear.
One last data point from the survey. Um, what the hell happened here, teachers?
Just 54 percent of teachers think average people have the same right as journalists to post a photo, video, or other document of a public event on social media. Your punishment is to write “The press doesn’t have more freedom of speech than I do” a thousand times on the blackboard after school today.