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In an interview at the American Enterprise Institute on his new book The Vanishing Adult: Our Coming of Age Crisis, Senator Ben Sasse mentioned one statistic that “scared the living daylights” out of him. Forty-one percent of Americans under age 35, he said, “now think the First Amendment is dangerous because you might use your freedom of speech to say something that would hurt someone else’s feelings.” His comments reflect concerns expressed by others about the impact of political correctness on freedom of speech.
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By coincidence, we at AEI just finished reviewing a substantial amount of survey data on offensive speech on campus and in society as a whole. We found that, in general, Americans of all ages are supportive of freedom of speech.
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The topic of political correctness is a common part of current conversations, but it has a limited history in national polls. There are only a handful of questions about the topic from the 1990s, but in recent years, the pollsters have asked more questions, including President Donald Trump’s comments about it, and about whether people should be allowed to speak freely even if their speech might be offensive.
In a 1993 poll from CBS News and the New York Times, 76 percent said they had heard of the phrase “politically correct.” Of those who had of it, 59 percent said that being politically correct was a bad thing, while a quarter, 24 percent, thought it was a good thing. Three-quarters in 1993 felt they needed to be more careful than they used to be about what they said for fear of offending someone.
Question wording and emphasis is always important. In a 2016 question from Gallup and the University of Virginia, 73 percent nationally agreed that political correctness is a serious problem in the country. In a question asked by Quinnipiac in November, people were evenly divided about whether there was too much political correctness today (47 percent) or whether these was too much prejudice (48 percent).
And what about Donald Trump’s comments? Although 57 percent told ABC News/Washington Post pollsters in 2016 that Trump goes too far in criticizing other people and groups (42 percent said he “tells it like it is regardless of whether it is politically correct”), 53 percent in another question said they agreed with him that “a big problem this country has is being politically correct.” (When the same statement was not attributed to Trump, 68 percent agreed with it.)
In three surveys from the past year that asked similarly worded questions about speech that might offend, around 60 percent said Americans need to be able to speak frankly about controversial issues and problems even if some people are offended, while around 40 percent said people should be more careful about the language they use to avoid giving offense to people with different backgrounds. On these questions, there were large partisan differences in the expected direction. Despite these differences, six in ten told Harvard/Harris Insights pollsters this February that they felt largely free to express their views, “even when they are unpopular among your friends and in your community.” Sixty-six percent of Democrats, 60 percent of Republicans, and 58 percent of independents agreed.
Young people’s views are similar to the views of older people. In a new Morning Consult poll that asked whether universities should allow guest speakers on campus, even if the guest’s words are considered hateful or offensive, half of 18–29 year olds and 55 percent of those 65 and older said they should be allowed. Twenty-seven percent of 18–29 year olds said universities should not allow them to speak, and 32 percent of older people gave that response. In another question from Pew, 60 percent of 18–29 years olds said “too many people are easily offended these days over the language others use,” compared to 38 percent who said “people need to be more careful about the language they use to avoid offending people with different backgrounds.” Among those ages 65 and older, those responses were 53 percent and 46 percent, respectively. Other ages groups’ responses differed from 18–29-year-olds’ by only a few percentage points.
In a Knight Foundation/Newseum/Gallup poll, 78 percent of college students said they preferred an open learning environment on campus where students are exposed to all types of speech, even speech that is offensive or biased against certain people. Twenty-two percent wanted colleges to create a positive learning environment by prohibiting this kind of speech. Looking at responses nationally by age group, 70 percent of 18–29-year-olds said it was more important for colleges to create an open learning environment, compared to 70 percent of 30–49-year-olds, 64 percent of 50–64-year-olds, and 58 percent of those ages 65 and older.
UCLA’s Cooperative Institutional Research Program survey of college freshman has occasionally asked questions over the past 40 years about whether colleges have the right to ban “extreme speakers” from campuses. In the past decade, the percentage who agreed colleges have that right has remained around 40 percent (43 percent in the latest survey from 2015), a higher share than the 22 to 33 percent who gave that response in surveys from the 1970s and 1980s, but about equal to the percentage who said that the first time the question was asked in 1967. Some have pointed to this trend as evidence of increasing intolerance among young people, but that conclusion does not fully capture the nuance of opinion.
First, polls show that young people differentiate between different types of speech the might be considered offensive. For example, in the 2015 UCLA poll, when 43 percent said colleges have the right to ban extreme speakers, 71 percent said colleges should prohibit racist or sexist speech. For college students in the Knight poll, only 27 percent said colleges should be able to establish policies that restrict expressing upsetting or offensive political views; in another question, 69 percent said they should be able to establish policies that restrict using slurs or other intentionally offensive language, or wearing costumes that stereotype certain racial and ethnic groups (63 percent).
Second, as we have already discussed, recent polls show that younger people have similar views to older people on broad questions about speech that should be allowed on college campuses. NORC’s General Social Survey trends on public willingness to allow different people “whose ideas are considered dangerous by other people” to speak in their community similarly show that Millennials do not differ significantly from older generations. For example, in 2016, 56 percent of Millennials said “a person who believes blacks are genetically inferior” should be allowed to make a speech in their community, compared to 63 percent of those in Generation X, 62 percent of Baby Boomers, and 54 percent of those in the Silent Generation. Asked about “a person who advocates doing away with elections and letting the military run the country,” 79 percent of Millennials, 76 percent of those in Generation X, 71 percent of Baby Boomers, and 55 percent of those in the Silent Generation said such a person should be allowed to make a speech in their community.
The bulk of the data we reviewed suggests young and old alike embrace freedom of expression for unpopular ideas, but are less willing to tolerate outright insults against particular groups, such as racial or ethnic minorities or women. Blanket statements about supposed intolerance among Millennials unfairly characterize young people’s views as notably different from their elders, and fail to note how the type of speech in question affects opinions.
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