If you have paid attention to the news you know that free speech on college campuses is in danger.

Time after time students and faculty howl and stamp their feet when a speaker who does not subscribe to groupthink is invited.  Intellectually lazy students carp about mico-aggressions, trigger warnings and safe spaces.

These overreactions take root when people fail to appreciate, or even understand, the First Amendment to the Constitution.  John Villasenor, a law professor at UCLA and a Senior Fellow at Brookings, has just released preliminary results of his survey of 1,500 college students on the First Amendment. His findings are deeply troubling.

Villasenor found that just 39 percent believe the First Amendment protects “hate speech.” Forty-four percent think—incorrectly—that offensive speech is not protected and 16 percent don’t know.

Villasenor created a scenario in his survey where a controversial speaker is invited to campus and a student group disrupts the speech so the audience cannot hear what is being said.  Half of all students questioned agreed that it is acceptable to silence a speaker.

The professor then warns us that it gets worse. Here is his next question:

“A student group opposed to the speaker uses violence to prevent the speaker from speaking. Do you agree or disagree that the student group’s actions are acceptable?”

One in five (19 percent) answered that it would be appropriate to use violence to stop the speaker. Writes Villasenor, “While percentages in the high teens and 20s are ‘low’ relative to what they could be, it’s important to remember that this question is asking about the acceptability of committing violence in order to silence speech.”

When students were asked whether they preferred a campus environment where certain viewpoints are prohibited or one where they were exposed to all types of speech, 53 percent said they would rather have the more sheltered environment.

The survey reflects a fundamental misunderstanding of the First Amendment.  The freedom of speech guaranteed by the Constitution is at risk when the next generation of this country’s leaders is more interested in guarding their tender psyches than participating in the rough-and-tumble marketplace of ideas.

The solution has to come from campus leaders.  Presidents and faculty need to stand up for unpopular speech and explain why it is protected by the First Amendment instead of kowtowing to the student groupthink.


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