WASHINGTON — When it comes to free speech, Americans find college campuses far friendlier to liberals than conservatives. Adults across the political spectrum see less tolerance for the right, according to a new poll.

Overall, 47% of adults say liberals have “a lot” of freedom to express their opinions on college campuses, while just 20% of conservatives say the same, according to a poll from the University of Chicago and the Associated Press-NORC Center for Public say affairs research.

Republicans perceive greater bias against conservatives on campus, but Democrats also see a difference — about four in 10 Democrats say liberals are free to express their opinions on campus, while about three in 10 Democrats say conservatives do can.

“If you’re a Republican or a lean Republican, you’re dead wrong, they turned you away,” said Rhonda Baker, 60, of Goldsboro, North Carolina, who voted for former President Donald Trump and has a son in college. “When they have a rally, it’s like, ‘MAGA is coming through.’ They say, ‘The KKK is coming through.’”

Debates over First Amendment rights have erupted on college campuses in recent years, with conflicts arising over guest speakers who espouse polarizing views, often from the political right.

Stanford University became a flashpoint this year when students denounced a conservative judge who was invited to speak. Recently, a conservative Princeton University professor was drowned out while discussing free speech at Washington College, a small school in Maryland.

At the same time, Republican lawmakers in dozens of states have introduced bills aimed at preventing public colleges from teaching topics considered divisive or liberal. According to the poll, only 30% of Americans say states should have the ability to restrict professors from teaching at public universities, although support was higher among Republicans.

Overall, Republicans see a clear double standard on college campuses. According to the poll, only 9% said conservatives could express their opinions, while 58% said liberals had that freedom. They were also slightly less likely than Americans overall to view campuses as respectful and inclusive places for conservatives.

Chris Gauvin, a Republican who has done construction work on campuses, believes conservative voices are being suppressed. While working at Yale University, he was once stopped by pro-LGBTQ+ activists who asked his opinion, he said.

“They asked me how I felt so I thought I would tell them. I spoke in a normal tone, I wasn’t upset or upset,” said Gauvin, 58, of Manchester, Connecticut. “But it continued with 18 to 20 people who suddenly became very irritated and excited. “It just exploded.”

He learned a lesson from this experience: “I learned there to be very calm.”

Republicans in Congress have sounded the alarm, warning of “the long-standing and pervasive deterioration of First Amendment rights” at U.S. colleges in a recent House report. Some in the Republican Party have called for federal legislation requiring colleges to protect free speech and punish those who violate the rights of others.

Nicholas Fleisher, chairman of an academic freedom committee for the American Association of University Professors, said public perception was distorted by the rare cases in which protesters went too far.

“The reality is that there is free speech for everyone on college campuses,” said Fleisher, a linguistics professor at the University of Wisconsin, Milwaukee. “During classroom conversations, people have the freedom to express their opinions. And they do.”

Officials at PEN America, a free speech group, say most students welcome different views. But as the country’s political divide grows, college campuses have also become more divided, said Kristen Shahverdian, senior manager of education at PEN.

“There is this polarization that continues to grow in our country, and colleges and universities are part of that ecosystem,” she said.

Morgan Ashford, a Democrat in an online graduate program at Troy University in Alabama, said she believes people can express themselves freely on campus, regardless of politics or race. Still, she sees a lack of tolerance for the LGBTQ+ community in her Republican state, where the governor has passed an anti-LGBTQ law.

“I think there needs to be policies around hate speech,” Ashford said. “Because some people can overdo it.”

When it comes to protesting speakers, most Americans say it should be peaceful. About 8 in 10 say it is acceptable to protest peacefully and without disruption at a campus event, while just 15% say it is OK to prevent a speaker from communicating with the audience, the survey found.

“If they don’t like it, they can get up and leave,” said Linda Woodward, 71, a Democrat from Hot Springs Village, Arkansas.

Mike Darlington, a real estate appraiser who votes Republican, said drowning out speakers violates the virtues of a free society.

“It seems to me to be a very, very selfish attitude that makes students think, ‘If you don’t think like me, then your thoughts are unacceptable,’” said Darlington, 58, of Chesterfield County, Virginia.

According to a database from the Foundation for Individual Rights and Expression, a free speech group, the Stanford protest was one of six campus speeches in the U.S. that ended in significant disruption this year, with another 11 last year.

While these cases are troubling, they are a symptom of a broader problem, said Ilya Shapiro, a conservative legal scholar who was shouted down during a speech at the University of California Law School last year. He says that universities have moved away from the classic ideal of science as a place for free research.

An even bigger problem than protesters disrupting speakers is that “students and faculty feel like they can’t openly express their views. They can’t even discuss certain issues,” said Shapiro, director of constitutional studies at Think Manhattan Institute tank.

About three in five Americans (62%) say a primary purpose of higher education is to support free exchange and debate about diverse ideas and values. Even more U.S. adults say the primary purpose of college is to teach students specific skills (82%), advance knowledge and ideas (78%), or teach students to think critically (76%). Additionally, 66% said a key goal is to create a respectful and inclusive learning environment.

“I think it should be purely to prepare you to enter the workforce,” said Gene VanZandt, 40, a Republican who works in shipbuilding in Hampton, Virginia. “I think our universities have strayed too far from the path they intended their mission to take.”

The poll finds that a majority of Americans believe students or professors should not be allowed to express racist, sexist or anti-LGBTQ views on campus, with slightly more Republicans than Democrats saying this these types of views should be allowed. There was slightly more tolerance for students expressing these views than for professors.

About 4 in 10 said students should be allowed to invite academic speakers accused of offensive language, while 55% said this should not be the case. There was a similar disagreement over whether professors should be allowed to invite these speakers.

Darlington believes students and professors should have the opportunity to discuss controversial topics, but there are limits.

“Exaggerated, openly racist, hateful things – no. “You shouldn’t be allowed to do that freely,” he said.


The survey of 1,095 adults was conducted September 7-11, 2023. A sample was used from NORC’s probability-based AmeriSpeak Panel, which is intended to be representative of the US population. The sampling error rate for all respondents is plus or minus 4 percentage points.


Gecker reported from San Francisco.


The Associated Press education team receives support from the Carnegie Corporation of New York. The AP is solely responsible for all content.

Source : abcnews.go.com

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