Who is an appropriate campus speaker? Almost nobody!

US colleges face many free speech challenges. Traditionally, colleges have been places where diverse viewpoints are encouraged even if ideas expressed are seen as controversial. But recently, there have been many instances of invited speakers to college campuses sparking protest, being shouted down, and even being physically confronted by students on campuses. It seems that a generational shift is taking place whereby Millennial students are highly concerned about inclusiveness and protecting vulnerable groups from potentially harmful speech. Prior generations of college students (Xers and especially Boomers) seemed to hold the concept of free speech in higher regard and seemed willing to permit more controversial speech on campus.

This is a fascinating issue and we covered it in depth in a poll of 1,000 US college students conducted last fall. This poll tackled a number of issues regarding how today’s college students view the balance between free speech and protecting vulnerable groups. We will be making a number of posts to share the results of this poll, and our first one relates to who today’s college students view as appropriate speakers to bring to campus.

We brainstormed a number of potential speakers, some liberal and some conservative. We listed government officials who, even though they have strong political opinions, we felt most of academia would say have a legitimate right to be heard. And, we listed celebrities accused of some reprehensible acts, speakers who have already generated controversy on college campuses, and foreign leaders considered to be rivals of the United States. Our goal was to see where Millennials draw a “line” – at what point is a speaker so controversial or so offensive that he/she would not have the support of students to come to campus to speak. In total, we listed 24 individuals.

The table below shows the percentage of US college students who would support each speaker coming to their campus to speak:

Person Support
Barack Obama 71%
Bernie Sanders 59%
Joe Biden 48%
Hillary Clinton 39%
Colin Kaepernick 35%
Elizabeth Warren 27%
Donald Trump 24%
Caitlyn Jenner 23%
Paul Ryan 21%
Mike Pence 20%
Louis CK 20%
Chelsea Manning 19%
Bill Cosby 19%
Vladimir Putin 19%
Al Sharpton 18%
Rachel Maddow 17%
Bill O’Reilly 17%
Kevin Spacey 16%
Milo Yiannopoulos 16%
OJ Simpson 16%
Ann Coulter 14%
Kim Jong-un 13%
Steve Bannon 13%
Betsy DeVos 11%
Harvey Weinstein 10%

Some interesting conclusions can be made from whom students are willing to support coming to their campus to speak:

  • Only two speakers, Barack Obama and Bernie Sanders, receive support from a majority of college students.
  • Liberal politicians lead the way – with 5 of the top 6 most supported speakers being leading Democrats.
  • Donald Trump, our current president, is only supported by about 1 in 4 (24%) college students as a campus speaker.
  • Celebrities accused of sexual harassment (Louis CK, Bill Cosby, Bill O’Reilly, Kevin Spacey, Harvey Weinstein) are among the least supported potential speakers.

We can also look at the same list, but this time sorted by the percentage of students who oppose them coming to their campus to speak:

Person Oppose
Kim Jong-un 61%
Donald Trump 53%
Bill Cosby 47%
Vladimir Putin 47%
OJ Simpson 45%
Harvey Weinstein 45%
Mike Pence 39%
Kevin Spacey 34%
Caitlyn Jenner 33%
Betsy DeVos 33%
Bill O’Reilly 28%
Steve Bannon 28%
Louis CK 27%
Hillary Clinton 27%
Milo Yiannopoulos 25%
Paul Ryan 24%
Ann Coulter 23%
Colin Kaepernick 18%
Al Sharpton 18%
Rachel Maddow 16%
Chelsea Manning 16%
Joe Biden 15%
Elizabeth Warren 13%
Bernie Sanders 12%
Barack Obama 10%

Here we see that:

  • Donald Trump is clearly polarizing among college students, with 53% saying they would oppose him coming to their campus to speak.
  • The most opposed speakers are foreign leaders/rivals (Kim Jong-Un, Vladimir Putin), Donald Trump, and celebrities who have been accused of serious crimes (Bill Cosby, OJ Simpson, Harvey Weinstein).
  • Surprisingly, some speakers who have had challenges when speaking at college campuses in the past (Ann Coulter, Milo Yiannopoulos) don’t have high levels of opposition in this poll.

These results are disheartening to those who feel that open expression of ideas is central to collegiate life. Perhaps the key conclusion from these data is how few speakers students support – showing a clear tendency of students to avoid perspectives they may find uncomfortable. This attitude has caused many college administrators to stop allowing potentially controversial speakers on campus as they worry about security and the unrest it may cause. Free speech advocates are likely to feel that today’s students are missing out on an educational opportunity – to listen to different perspectives to help shape a world view.

In either case, attitudes towards free speech on campus are very different than a generation ago – a topic we will be pursuing as we release other data from this poll.

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