Keith Whittington: The kids are alright

SpeakIt has rapidly become a common trope that the current crop of college students belong to a generation of “snowflakes.” Unusually sensitive, unusually intolerant, the kids these days are seen by some as a worrying threat to the future of America’s liberal democracy. High-profile incidents on college campuses like the shouting down of Charles Murray at Middlebury College and the rioting in the streets of Berkeley during an appearance by Milo Yiannopoulos give vivid support for the meme. Some surveys of the attitudes of millennials about tolerance and free speech lend some further credence to the snowflake characterization. When the Knight Foundation and Gallup asked college students whether diversity or free speech was more important, a slim majority chose diversity. When a Brookings Institution fellow asked college students whether it was acceptable to use force to silence a speaker making “hurtful” statements, a surprisingly large number said yes.

Should we be worried about the children? Perhaps not. Context matters, and some of the current hand-wringing over events on college campuses has tended to ignore the broader context. In particular, when told that the current generation of students do not seem fully supportive of free speech and tolerance of disagreement, we are rarely told in comparison to what. Compared to a perfect ideal of American values, the current generation of students might fall somewhat short—but so do the generations that preceded them. We aspire to realize our beliefs in tolerance and liberty, but we muddle through without a perfect commitment to our civil libertarian aspirations.

It would be a mistake to be overly complacent about American public support for civil liberties, including free speech, but we should also be cautious about rushing into excessive pessimism about the current generation of college students. It has been a routine finding in the public opinion literature going back decades that Americans express high levels of support for the freedom of speech in the abstract, but when asked about particular forms of controversial speech that support begins to melt away. In the middle of the twentieth century, for example, one study found that more than three-quarters of a sample of lawyers thought that university students should have the freedom to invite controversial speakers to campus, but less than half of the general public agreed. When asked if the government should be allowed to suppress speech that might incite an audience to violence, less than a fifth of the leaders of the American Civil Liberties Union said yes, but more than a third of the members of the ACLU were ok with it. In the 1950s, Americans said they supported free speech, but they also said the speech of Communists should be restricted. In the 1970s, Americans said they supported free speech, but they also said the speech of racists should be restricted. In the 2000s, Americans said they supported free speech, but they also said the speech of Muslims and atheists should be restricted.

Current American college students say that speakers with whom they strongly disagree should be allowed to speak on campus. But a majority of liberal college students changed their mind when they are told that such a speaker might be racist, and more than a third of conservative college students changed their mind when they are told that such a speaker might be “anti-American.” Fortunately, the evidence suggests that only a tiny minority of college students favor activists taking steps to disrupt speaking events on campus. Those numbers are not ideal, but it is important to bear in mind that the college-educated tend to be more tolerant to disagreeable speakers and ideas than is the general public, and that is pretty much as true now as it has been in the past. Public support for the freedom of speech has not always stood firm, and campus debates over the scope of free speech are likely to have large consequences for how Americans think about these issues in the future.

We should draw some lessons from recent events and surveys, but the lesson should not be that current students are delicate snowflakes. First, we should recognize that the current generation of college students is not unique. They have their own distinctive concerns, interests, and experiences, but they are not dramatically less tolerant than those who came before them. Second, we should appreciate that tolerance of disagreement is something we as a country have to constantly strive for and not something that we can simply take for granted. It is easy to support freedom for others in the abstract, but it is often much more difficult to do so in the midst of particular controversies. The current group of college-age Americans struggle with that tension just as other Americans do and have before. Third, we should note that there is a vocal minority on and off college campuses who do in fact question liberal values of tolerance and free speech. They do so not because they are snowflakes but because they hold ideological commitment at odds with values that are deeply rooted in the American creed. Rather than magnifying their importance by making them the avatar of this generation, those who care about our democratic constitutional commitments should work to isolate them and show why theirs is not the best path forward and why diversity, tolerance, and free speech are compatible and mutually reinforcing values and not contrasting alternatives. It is an ongoing project we hold in common to understand and reaffirm the principles of free speech that underlie our political system. Today’s college students are not the only ones who could benefit from that lesson.

Keith E. Whittington is the William Nelson Cromwell Professor of Politics at Princeton University and a leading authority on American constitutional theory and law. He is the author of Speak Freely: Why Universities Must Defend Free Speech