US students value diversity over free speech, poll finds

Women and ethnic minority learners more likely to prioritise inclusivity

March 12, 2018
First Amendment and Independence Hall, Philadelphia

US university students value a diverse and inclusive environment more than free speech rights, according to a new study on student attitudes on free expression.

The report from Gallup and the Knight Foundation comes at a turbulent time on college campuses nationwide, where students have challenged the principles of the US Constitution’s First Amendment – they have called for controversial campus speakers to be disinvited and, when they disagree with speakers’ messages, have shouted them down. They’ve also called for administrators to invest more in diversity initiatives and are demanding clear statements from them against speech they deem hateful.

Asked to select which is more important, about 53 per cent of the students interviewed for the study picked diversity, versus 46 per cent who chose free speech. These data are based on telephone interviews with 3,014 young students (aged 18 to 24) at 100 four-year institutions, both public and private.

When the authors broke down the data further, they provided a clear picture of what certain campus demographics prioritise. About 61 percent of men favoured free speech rights far more than a diverse and inclusive campus (39 per cent). Conversely, 64 per cent of women believe that diversity is more important, versus 35 per cent who picked free speech.

Differences emerge with race, too. White students tended to value free speech more – 52 per cent compared with 47 per cent who picked diversity and inclusion. About 68 per cent of black students, meanwhile, said diversity was more important compared with 31 per cent for free speech.

“We are seeing increasingly diverse campuses, much more diverse than they would have been a generation ago,” said Sam Gill, the Knight Foundation’s vice-president for communities and impact.

Thus, Mr Gill said, universities and their leaders are finding themselves adjusting to the demands of contemporary students – creating new jobs and offices that fulfil students’ calls for diversity.

The foundation and Gallup conducted a similar survey in 2016 and found similar results, though in this round they found students continue to skew more in favour of protecting diversity than free speech.

This is an edited version of a story which first appeared on Inside Higher Ed.

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