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College students show strong support for First Amendment, but some say diversity and inclusion is more important to a democracy than free speech, Gallup-Knight survey shows

Views on security of First Amendment rights vary by political affiliation


As college campuses across the United States grapple with questions surrounding the power and limits of free expression, a new Gallup-Knight Foundation report reveals that U.S. college students show strong support for the First Amendment, but favor some restrictions on free speech rights to foster an environment where diverse perspectives are respected.

The survey, sponsored by the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation, the American Council on Education (ACE), the Charles Koch Foundation and the Stanton Foundation, surveyed 3,014 U.S. college students, including an oversample of 216 students at Historically Black Colleges and Universities (HBCUs). It builds on a 2016 study by Gallup, Knight Foundation and the Newseum Institute.

The report reveals that while students still overwhelmingly support an open learning environment on campus that allows all types of speech (70 percent) versus a positive one that puts limits on offensive speech (29 percent), this number has dropped since 2016, from 78 percent to 70 percent.

The majority of college students say protecting free speech rights (56 percent) and promoting a diverse and inclusive society (52 percent) are both extremely important to democracy. But when asked which was more important, students chose, by narrow margin, diversity and inclusion over free speech, 53 percent to 46 percent. 

Students are far more concerned than they were in 2016 about the security of First Amendment rights. Sixty-four percent of college students say freedom of speech is secure, down from 73 percent in 2016; 60 percent, down from 81 percent, say freedom of the press is secure. The decline is largely driven by political affiliation, with students who identify as Democrats showing drastic declines, independents showing sizeable declines and Republican perceptions about First Amendment rights security largely unchanged.

In addition to the security of free speech rights and a focus on diversity and inclusion, the new survey examines the evolution of student attitudes to the First Amendment in light of current debates, exploring issues including: whether college students ever consider violence or shouting down speakers acceptable, how much they trust the press, and what they believe is social media’s role in advancing or limiting free speech on campus.

“The study shows a rapid evolution in student views of the First Amendment in key areas, underscoring a growing pessimism amongst students about the security of First Amendment rights,” said Sam Gill, Knight Foundation vice president for communities and impact. “The emerging generation has a new and different view of the role free expression plays in our democracy. What they’re saying is, ‘Free expression is important, but so is diversity.” 

Other key findings include:

Students support free speech, but many are willing to entertain restrictions and prioritize inclusion over expression. 

  • As stated above, when asked to choose, students overwhelmingly (70 percent to 29 percent) favor an open environment over a positive one that puts limits on offensive speech.  Democrats, blacks and women are among the groups that are less supportive of an open environment than they were in 2016; Republicans still overwhelmingly favor an open environment (86 percent).
  • At the same time, students (64 percent) do not believe the U.S. Constitution should protect hate speech, and the majority (73 percent) support policies that restrict offensive slurs. 
  • Students are more likely now (61 percent) than in 2016 (54 percent) to think the climate on their campus prevents people from speaking their mind because others might take offense.
  • Many colleges struggle when inviting controversial figures to speak on campus. Ninety percent of college students say it is never acceptable to use violence to prevent someone from speaking, but 10 percent say is sometimes acceptable. A majority (62 percent) also say shouting down speakers is never acceptable, although 37 percent believe it is sometimes acceptable.

Students are less confident in the security of First Amendment rights

  • Compared with the 2016 survey, students perceive all five freedoms guaranteed by the First Amendment as less secure. Freedom of the press, which was seen as the most secure right in 2016, saw a 21-point drop from 81 to 60 percent. Free speech, freedom of assembly and freedom to petition the government all saw nine-point declines and freedom of religion saw a four-point drop. 
  • The largest shift can be seen in Democratic student views on freedom of the press. In 2016, the same proportion (83 percent) of Democratic and Republican students said freedom of the press was secure. This number has dropped 35 points among Democratic students to 48 percent, while Republican views remain steady at 79 percent.    

Students increasingly see downsides for free expression on social media 

  • Students say discussion of social and political issues mostly takes place on social media (57 percent), rather than in public areas of campus (43 percent).
  • College students increasingly agree that social media can stifle free expression because people can block others whose views they disagree with (60 percent) or because they are afraid of being attacked (59 percent). Both percentages are up roughly 10 points from 2016. In addition, 8 in 10 students agree that the internet has been responsible for a significant increase in hate speech.  
  • Sixty-eight percent of students strongly or somewhat agree that social media platforms like Facebook and Twitter should be responsible for limiting hate speech on their platforms. While 79 percent of Democrats hold this belief, 52 percent of Republicans do. Black students are also more likely than white students to think social media companies should attempt to limit hate speech.

Student trust in the press has increased, but is divided along political and race lines

  • Students express significantly more trust in the media now than in 2016. Fifty percent expressed “a great deal” or “a fair amount” of trust in the press, which is up from 42 percent in 2016.
  • Trust in the media varies depending on political affiliation. Sixty-four percent of Democratic students say they have “a great deal” or “fair amount” of trust in the media to report the news accurately and fairly versus 44 percent in 2016. Republicans’ trust remains low with 65 percent expressing “not much” or no trust in the media.
  • Sixty-percent percent of college students say it is never acceptable to deny the press access to cover events on campus, while 39 percent say this is always or sometimes acceptable. As was the case in 2016, HBCU students show higher levels of support than other groups for denying press access to cover campus events, with 11 percent saying it is always acceptable and 45 percent saying it is sometimes acceptable. 

The findings will be presented at ACE2018, ACE’s 100th Annual Meeting in Washington, DC, on March 13.

This report is part of Knight Foundation’s efforts to promote press freedom and information access, and ensure that the rights guaranteed under the First Amendment are preserved. Knight Foundation has made many investments in this area, and supported the launch of the Knight First Amendment Institute in collaboration with Columbia University.

To read the full report visit:

About Gallup

Gallup delivers analytics and advice to help leaders and organizations solve their most pressing problems. Combining more than 80 years of experience with its global reach, Gallup knows more about the attitudes and behaviors of employees, customers, students and citizens than any other organization in the world.

About the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation

Knight Foundation is a national foundation with strong local roots. We invest in journalism, in the arts, and in the success of cities where brothers John S. and James L. Knight once published newspapers. Our goal is to foster informed and engaged communities, which we believe are essential for a healthy democracy. For more, visit

About the American Council on Education

Celebrating its centennial in 2018, ACE is the major coordinating body for all the nation’s higher education institutions, representing nearly 1,800 college and university presidents and related associations. It provides leadership on key higher education issues and influences public policy through advocacy. For more information, please visit or follow ACE on Twitter @ACEducation.

About the Charles Koch Foundation

More than 50 years ago, Charles G. Koch began supporting education in the belief that everyone has the ability to learn, contribute, and succeed if they have the freedom and opportunity to do so. The Charles Koch Foundation, founded in 1980, continues this work by funding research and education that helps people expand their horizons, develop their skills, and help others. Through grants to more than 350 colleges and universities nationwide and non-profit organizations, the Foundation connects scholars, students, and partners with the resources to explore diverse ideas and solutions that meet the challenges of our day. For more information visit

About the Stanton Foundation

The Stanton Foundation was created by Frank Stanton, who is widely regarded as one of the greatest executives in the history of electronic communications and one of the television industry’s founding fathers. The Foundation’s interests include classic and 21st century First Amendment issues, and the larger challenge of the creation of a better-informed citizenry.

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