Mar 14, 2024 - Politics & Policy
Axios Vibes

College Republicans and Democrats agree: Defend speech that hurts feelings

Illustration of a speech bubble emoji, a series of graduation caps, and a series of censored words amongst rectangles of various colors

Illustration: Sarah Grillo/Axios

More than two-thirds of college students believe universities should protect free speech — even if the speech extends to physical threats or inciting violence, according to a new Axios Vibes survey by The Harris Poll.

Why it matters: The stunning finding reveals a desire to push the limits of free expression on campus. It hints at deep divides over how to advocate for Palestinian civilians while protecting the safety of Jewish students.

By the numbers: Free speech was the third most-cited concern (32%) of the 643 students polled about their institutions, after tuition (50%) and safety (46%).

  • A clear majority of students — 68% — argued for pushing the limits of speech on campus even if there's some risk of violence. That's much higher than the 43% of the 3,525 non-students polled who share that view.
  • 77% of respondents said campus speech should be protected even if some feel the language is deeply upsetting.
  • 86% said their institutions should make them feel safe sharing their opinions on tense social issues and global conflicts, and be a safe haven for free speech for the student body.

Between the lines: There was no difference between Democratic students and Republican students. But there was a gender gap, with 74% of men but just 61% of women arguing for expanded speech.

😟 Axios Vibe Check: Students are worried. They increasingly view their colleges as hypocritical, and think administrators are prioritizing big donors over free speech.

  • 55% of students said their school's administration is more concerned with protecting endowments and donors than protecting expression.
  • 57% of students surveyed said their university has a bias toward Israel or pro-Israel issues, as opposed to favoring Palestinians.

What they're saying: "They just don't feel like they have any control," The Harris Poll CEO John Gerzema told Axios.

  • "They've spent all this money to be on campus and be free-thinkers, and they feel that their university is 'more worried about endowments and donors than us.'"
  • "They're on the cusp of activism because of the lack of control they feel over their future."

The intrigue: The survey found a big gap between students' view of their administration's response to the war in Gaza, and how non-students see universities' response.

  • 70% of students said their institution is addressing antisemitism well. Just 37% of those not enrolled in higher education institutions think they are doing a good job.
  • 64% of students said their institutions are handling those who support pro-Palestinian issues well. Just 37% of non-students agreed.

Methodology: The findings in this Axios Vibes survey by The Harris Poll are based on a nationally representative sample of 4,168 U.S. adults conducted online, Feb. 16-25, 2024.

  • Of those, 643 were enrolled in an undergraduate, graduate or professional higher education program.
  • The sampling precision of Harris online polls is measured by using a Bayesian credible interval. For this study, the data for the overall population is accurate to within ±2.0 percentage points using a 95% confidence level, while the data for the subset is accurate to within ±4.8 points.
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