Earlier this year, Vox’s Matt Yglesias argued that support for free speech was high and growing. The implication was that conservative and libertarian fears about a declining culture of free speech––particularly among college students, who used to be some of its most fervent advocates––were unwarranted and off-base.
Unfortunately for Yglesias, his own data refutes his interpretation. In fact, principled support for free speech is a minority view, and it probably always has been. This should concern observers of all political stripes, and these trends should be more accurately conveyed by pundits like Yglesias, who hopefully know better than to accept statistics at face value.
Yglesias pointed to General Social Survey (GSS) data, which show that increasing shares of Americans think certain speakers — Communists, antitheists, homosexuals, militarists, or racists — should be allowed to speak in their town. In absolute terms, the chart puts support for each group’s right to speak over 50 percent (and most over 60 percent) since the 1970s. Most show significant gains over the last few decades.
But this is a bad way of measuring support for “free speech.” These questions mostly track fear or dislike of certain groups, not free speech as a principle. Who, in 2018, would seriously support restricting the speech of gay people purely because they’re gay? The fact that 90 percent of Americans today support allowing homosexuals to speak probably reflects changing attitudes about sexuality, not rising devotion to freedom of speech.
Likewise, the decline and fall of the Soviet Union probably explains falling opposition to Marxist speech. When Communism is seen more as an edgy phase for contrarian teenagers than as an existential threat to the country, it’s no wonder few people are worried about its proponents speaking out.
The Censorship Ceiling
At most, the GSS can put a ceiling on support for free speech. If you’re cool with Commies, that doesn’t tell us where you stand on censoring other groups or views , but if you want to censor Commies (or any other viewpoints), you’re not a fan of free speech.
Based on that principle, we filtered the survey to exclude people who supported censoring any of the listed speakers. Defenders of free speech, as a matter of principle, must be in favor of allowing all types of people to speak.
When looked at this way, the data flatly contradict the Vox narrative. The share of Americans who support allowing all of these groups to speak has hovered around 50 percent since the early ‘90s. Disappointing as it may be, there is no dramatic upward trend.
Unsurprisingly, every time another controversial speaker is added to the survey, consistent support for allowing speech drops.
In 1976, the GSS started asking about racists and militarists, in addition to Communists, homosexuals, and anti-theists, and total support fell by 10 points, from 47 percent to 37 percent. In the late ‘80s, this basket of speakers gradually recovered to just below 50 percent, then remained flat for decades. In 2008, GSS added a question about a “Muslim clergyman who preaches hatred of the United States”––total support again fell nine points, from 44 to 35 percent, where it has hovered since.
It’s worth noting here that the six viewpoints polled by the GSS do not even represent the most controversial kinds of speech currently protected by the First Amendment . Consider “crush videos” (violent videos depicting animal cruelty, the legality of which has been hotly debated); flag-burning; homophobic protests of soldiers’ funerals by groups like the Westboro Baptist Church; political speech by corporations; picketing outside abortion clinics; Nazi marches through Jewish neighborhoods; or the publication of classified intelligence leaked by whistleblowers.
Is there any doubt that many of that remaining 35 percent would (unlike the Supreme Court) draw the line at those types of expression?
The Kids: Maybe Not All Right?
There’s no polling that gives us a full picture of Americans’ attitude toward free speech. Generally speaking, people prefer to use the GSS data because it has covered such a large sample for such a long time. There are a few more detailed studies that target free speech attitudes among college students, in particular, but they should be taken with a grain of salt.
A 2018 Gallup survey measured Pomona College students’ attitudes and found that 28 percent felt policies to prevent offensive speech had “not gone far enough.” Moreover, 65 percent believed that colleges should be able to restrict “wearing costumes that stereotype certain racial or ethnic groups.” The study also found that:
Pomona students’ attitudes about how colleges should govern speech on campus vary dramatically by their political ideology. Three-quarters of students who identify as ‘very liberal’ believe it is important for colleges to prohibit certain types of speech, compared with about half (49%) of self-identified ‘liberal’ students. In fact, ‘very liberal’ students are nearly four times more likely than moderate and conservative students to favor prohibiting some types of speech.
This is contrary to findings from the GSS, which (as of 2016) has always found that “very liberal” people among the general public are less inclined to prohibit speech than others––left, right, or center.
One college in California does not a free speech crisis make, but Pomona is interesting because of its status as a highly exclusive liberal arts school. If you want to get a sense of how elite college students think, it’s a suggestive nugget of information.
An opt-in survey conducted by John Villasenor, a law professor and visiting fellow at the Brookings Institution, found somewhat troubling results, too. A fifth of undergraduate respondents said it’s permissible to use physical force or violence “to shut down expression they consider offensive”––and about four in ten said the First Amendment does not protect “hate speech” (whatever that may be).
The First Amendment Is Fundamentally Anti-Censorship
These results shouldn’t be surprising. Most people aren’t ideological, and even if they say they like “free speech” in the abstract, we shouldn’t expect them to have consistent principles they will cling to all the time.
Americans are not exceptional in this regard — we are not just the ACLU standing up for the rights of Nazis, we are also the city council of Skokie, Illinois, banning their march. People are walking contradictions, full of oxymorons and flimsy commitments that can change with the winds of our political parties and tribes.
Does any of this prove there’s a “free speech crisis”? No, not by itself. The data shows that consistent support for allowing controversial speakers is low, but this isn’t a new phenomenon. The trend appears to be flat, and the targets of censorship have been diverse enough (and rotate frequently enough) that there hasn’t been a coalition broad and stable enough to knock a hole in the First Amendment firewall.
Similarly, the GSS doesn’t disprove that there’s a problem with free speech; a majority of the population is quite frank about their willingness to shut down various speakers they find too uncomfortable or offensive to defend. In fact, there are other worrying signs in the data: specifically, the recent rise in support for censoring racist speech among college graduates and moderate liberals. When highly educated people increasingly fail to support the principle of free speech––and to distinguish support for that principle from the content of the speech itself––perhaps we should be worried.
In general, though, the GSS questions are both too narrow and too vague to give us a clear picture of changes in support for free speech . It is perhaps most likely that the pundit class is drawing premature and somewhat ill-conceived conclusions to support their narratives; it is not the first time this has happened, nor will it be the last.
But the one thing the survey should not do is reassure you that public support for freedom of speech is broad and growing. At best, it looks shallow, stagnant, and lacking in principle.
Liz Wolfe is deputy managing editor at The Federalist. She writes regularly for The Federalist, Playboy, and Reason on the intersection of law and culture.
Daniel Bier is a writer who lives in Austin, Texas. He is the editor of The Skeptical Libertarian blog and previously served as editor for LearnLiberty and the Foundation for Economic Education.