College students favor free expression and First Amendment rights on campus, but with certain limitations, according to a study conducted in 2017.

In this study released on March 11 by the Knight Foundation and its partners, thousands of four-year university students from 240 campuses were asked their feelings regarding free speech and protecting the First Amendment.

According to the Knight Foundation, students generally prefer a campus where a wide range of views are expressed. Seventy percent prefer an open learning environment, allowing speech offensive toward certain groups of individuals. However, two-thirds of students said hate speech should not be protected by the First Amendment.

“But there is a big difference between offensive language and insulting, crude, crass language,” said Hyrum Lewis, a History, Geography and Political Science instructor on campus. “So, while we may want to uphold classroom rules to keep speech civil (avoiding curse words and ad hominem attacks, for instance), we would never want to prevent certain arguments from being made (in civil terms) no matter how ‘offensive’ they might be to someone somewhere.”

Scroll illustration by Megan Robinson

Lewis said there is a difference between making an argument for or against an affirmative action and calling someone derogatory terms.

An overwhelming majority of 87 percent felt providing safe spaces for students who feel threatened by speech would be a good solution. In addition, 83 percent felt establishing free speech zones on a campus where students can openly discuss and debate would prevent others from being hurt by the words of others.

“You can’t go through life being afraid of being offended,” said Hunter Thompson, a freshman studying construction management. “These free speech zones aren’t really free speech zones at all. It is a liberal gathering point in which they can gather in large and beat down the one that goes against their beliefs.”

Thompson said it is not free speech when individuals shut down the ideas of others. He felt individuals should be able to express themselves and share their ideas without a fear of being stopped by the opposing side, no matter what their political beliefs are.

Results from the study also show 64 percent of students feel their freedom of speech is secure in the United States, a nine percent decrease from 2016.

Samantha Frost, a junior at Western Washington University, said, “I feel that not only am I able to, but I’m encouraged to by the University to use my first amendment right to share my political beliefs,”

Frost is a part of Young Democrats of WWU, which regularly holds events on campus to protest and debate controversial political views.

“For a democracy to thrive, citizens must be able to express their views on important issues to inform their elected leaders about what they want them to do,” according to the study. “But all citizens regardless of their background should have the same opportunity to express their views.”

This is where students place a high value on protecting free speech rights, with 56 percent saying it is “extremely important to do so” and another 33 percent say it is “very important.”

“It is useful for society to have free speech because it is how we gain greater knowledge,” Lewis said. “None of us is infallible; we all have deficiencies of understanding and knowledge that can be corrected. It’s through the airing of different ideas and the clash of perspectives that we get closer to the truth.”

He said he is a strong believer in the First Amendment and he considers freedom of speech a cornerstone of American freedom. He said it is important to engage in alternative views honestly and respectfully to strengthen our own beliefs. He describes the classroom as a place dedicated to gaining truth and knowledge, and without a freedom of speech, individuals are unable to gain knowledge for themselves.

The Knight Foundation was founded in 1950 to facilitate “informed and engaged communities” allowing democracy to be well-functioning and representative government.