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Ignorance imperils free speech

By M.D. Kittle 

Wisconsin Spotlight | Jan. 11, 2021

MADISON — Wisconsin, we have a problem. 

A new survey of University of Wisconsin-Madison students underscores the perils free speech, and the First Amendment in general, faces. 

The Tommy G. Thompson Center on Public Leadership, in partnership with the University of Wisconsin Survey Center, polled 530 undergraduate students at UW-Madison about their views on free speech and religious liberties. 

“The results are troubling,” says Ryan Owens, the center’s director and professor of political science at Wisconsin’s flagship public university. “As this report describes, many UW students displayed substantial opposition to established free speech principles.”

Among the surveys’ findings: 

  • Nearly 40% of students believe the government should restrict the speech of climate change deniers
  • Over 50% of students believe government should restrict the speech of racially insensitive people 
  • 63% believe government should punish hate speech
  • Over 35% believe that public institutions should be allowed to revoke invitations to speakers who might offend someone  
  • 53% believe that employers’ religious beliefs should give way when it comes to providing goods or services, like contraceptives or abortion coverage, that violate their religious beliefs. 

The poll also found female respondents are nearly always more supportive of speech restrictions than males, similar to other recent polls. Perhaps not surprisingly, liberals nearly always hold more restrictive speech views than conservatives. 

As liberal politicians and some mainstream media outlets clamor for government restrictions against right-of-center news organizations, the UW survey finds 35% of students agreed that government “should take action against biased media.” 

“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. Of course, students are not alone in this regard.,” the survey states. 

Nationally, Gallup’s 2020 First Amendment on Campus report finds 68% of college students regard citizens’ free speech rights as being “extremely important” to democracy. Nearly the same percentage (69%) believe an inclusive society that is welcoming to diverse groups is “extremely important.” Those two ideas often stand in conflict, and more colleges campuses are putting “welcoming environments” ahead of welcoming an open marketplace of ideas. 

Meanwhile 78% of students in the Gallup poll support colleges providing safe spaces, or areas of campus that are designed to be free from “threatening actions, ideas or conversations.”

The gap between older generations on First Amendment rights is widening, too, with younger people more supportive of putting limits on speech than older Americans, according to the UW survey. 

“It is critical that UW students develop a stronger competency with respect to First Amendment protections,” Owens warns. 

The Center on Public Leadership in its report offers recommendations that UW-Madison and the University of Wisconsin System may consider to address the growing concerns. 

While UW-Madison promotes its academic freedom policy in extracurricular briefings and e-newsletters, the center asserts that’s not nearly enough. First Amendment advocates for years have said the university has paid lip service to free speech on campus, often limiting or obstructing voices that don’t fit into their “welcoming environment” policies. 

Principally, the System could require students to take a class on the First Amendment. 

“Like other general education requirements (such as the requirement that each student take three credits of ethnic studies to graduate), the requirement would ensure that students graduate with requisite skills “to participate effectively and respectfully in a multicultural society, including in the workplace,” the report states. 

And the center recommends requiring departments or colleges to include First Amendment relevant topics in their courses. It particularly points to journalism schools, many creating graduates who believe in restricting freedom of the press. 

“Our goal here was not to advocate for a particular reform but, rather, to show that we have a problem and spur a discussion on how to address it,” the report states. 

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