A new generation of Americans doesn’t value free speech

Summary: It’s another sign of America’s decay. As adults, they are unlikely to change their values. Soon two generations of Americans won’t value free speech . These young people are part of America, and eventually will be America. Let’s fix this problem before it is too late.

Burning Constitution

The Republic seems strong, rock-like, even eternal. But we make America anew each generation. We pass on both the values of America and a love for and allegiance to the Constitution. The next generation becomes America, for good or ill. A sufficiently serious break in this chain can be fatal to the Republic. So this series of posts about decay of the Republic should frighten us, showing our loss of confidence in America’s institutions and fading belief in its values.

The latest news goes to the heart of the problem: college student’s no longer believe in many of America’s core values. Contrast these results with 1964, when the students of Berkeley protested in support of free speech.

Views among college students regarding the First Amendment:
Results from a new survey.

By John Villasenor of Brookings., 18 September 2017.

“The survey results establish with data what has been clear anecdotally to anyone who has been observing campus dynamics in recent years: Freedom of expression is deeply imperiled on U.S. campuses. In fact, despite protestations to the contrary (often with statements like ‘we fully support the First Amendment, but…’), freedom of expression is clearly not, in practice, available on many campuses, including many public campuses that have First Amendment obligations.”

Does the First Amendment protect “hate speech”? 39% Yes, 44% No, 16% Don’t Know.

Do you agree with those shouting down speaker who “is known for making offensive and hurtful statements”? 51% Yes, 49% No. That shows that professors are training a generation of sheep. That will be useful for the New America that’s coming.

“In future all questions relating to the working of the farm would be settled by a special committee of pigs, presided over by himself. …The animals would still assemble on Sunday mornings to salute the flag, sing ‘Beasts of England’, and receive their orders for the week; but there would be no more debates.

“In spite of the shock that Snowball’s expulsion had given them, the animals were dismayed by this announcement. …Four young porkers in the front row uttered shrill squeals of disapproval, and all four of them sprang to their feet and began speaking at once. …Then the sheep broke out into a tremendous bleating of ‘Four legs good, two legs bad!’ which went on for nearly a quarter of an hour and put an end to any chance of discussion.” {From George Orwell’s Animal Farm.}

Do you agree with those who use violence to prevent speech by someone who ”is known for making offensive and hurtful statements”? 19% Yes, 81% No. That 19% is sufficient to spark large-scale violence, especially when much of the other 81% is quietly sympathetic.

Let’s drill down to see some patterns in the answers.

Brookings Study - Hate Speech punishment - Democrats

Brookings Study - Hate Speech punishment - Women

Brookings Study - Hate Speech punishment - Women

The author’s solution

“More fundamentally, I think that there is insufficient attention given to the First Amendment, and to constitutional principles generally, in pre-college education. …We don’t need to turn middle and high school students into experts on constitutional law. But we can do a better job of giving them a fuller explanation of the scope of the First Amendment, and the fact that it protects the expression of offensive views.

“And, I would hope that we can do a better job at convincing current and future college students that the best way to respond to offensive speech is with vigorous debate, or peaceful protest — and not, as many seem to believe, with violence.”

This is more hopeful than logical. What changed to produce this generation of free speech opponents? Do their values come largely from the curriculum, from school, or from parents and the overall social environment?

What if this generation’s beliefs come from their teachers, from grade-school to professors? What will make those teachers and professors change their beliefs? More patriotic exhortations and op-eds?

The problem is bigger than you think

In these op-eds Catherine Rampell, a writer at the WaPo, describes what researchers have learned about this problem. It is big and deep. We are doing little to solve it.


All the commentary I have seen on this study ignores two stark facts. First, the beliefs of these young people are set. They might change, but probably cannot be changed by the  exhortations and op-eds. We probably will have to a generation of semi-authoritarians for the next fifty years. Let’s hope they do not find a cause or leader that unifies them them to move against the Republic.

Now for the bad news: the processes (whatever they are) that produced this generation is probably still at work. Each year will bring to America a new generation that does not share the core values of America-that-once-was — unless we discover the cause and fix it. That should be our priority. Moralizing and whining won’t help.

Now for the worst news: this is just one aspect of a growing loss of confidence and belief in America. It will be terminal for the Republic if not fixed.

For More Information

We can fix America. See the suggestions in Reforming America: steps to a new politics.

If you liked this post, like us on Facebook and follow us on Twitter. See all posts about politics in America, about the Trump years in America, about fascism, and especially these…

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The Age of Responsibility: Luck, Choice, and the Welfare State
Available at Amazon.

A powerful book about America

The Age of Responsibility by Yascha Mounk shows how our cult of individualism has made us weak, forgetting that only together are we strong. See this post about the book. From the publisher…

“A novel focus on ‘personal responsibility’ has transformed political thought and public policy in America and Europe. Since the 1970s, responsibility ― which once meant the moral duty to help and support others―has come to suggest an obligation to be self-sufficient. This narrow conception of responsibility has guided recent reforms of the welfare state, making key entitlements conditional on good behavior.

“Drawing on intellectual history, political theory, and moral philosophy, Yascha Mounk shows why the The Age of Responsibility is pernicious ― and how it might be overcome.

“Personal responsibility began as a conservative catchphrase. But over time, leaders across the political spectrum came to subscribe to its underlying framework. Today, even egalitarian philosophers rarely question the normative importance of responsibility. Emphasizing the pervasive influence of luck over our lives, they cast the poor as victims who cannot be held responsible for their actions.

“Mounk shows that today’s focus on individual culpability is both wrong and counterproductive: it distracts us from the larger economic forces determining aggregate outcomes, ignores what we owe our fellow citizens regardless of their choices, and blinds us to other key values, such as the desire to live in a society of equals. Recognizing that even society’s neediest members seek to exercise genuine agency, Mounk builds a positive conception of responsibility. Instead of punishing individuals for their past choices, he argues, public policy should aim to empower them to take responsibility for themselves―and those around them.”

29 thoughts on “A new generation of Americans doesn’t value free speech”

  1. Pretty much agree with this – the millennials are more interested in their their technological gadgets than in anything like free speech. In part I think this is due to education systems that now seem intent on teaching students by rote learning and focusing solely on tests and exams rather than fostering their analytical and free thought abilities. Example in point – my 12-year-old son has just started his new school and even in the first two months he is being tested the whole time on his different subjects, including religion. Testings IS NOT teaching and more teachers should be aware of this.

    1. The teachers don’t like it any better than you do, at least by and large. (You can probably find someone who supports anything if you look hard enough, of course.)

    2. Ivan,

      “I think this is due to education systems that now seem intent on teaching students by rote learning and focusing solely on tests and exams rather than fostering their analytical and free thought abilities.”

      We can rule out that theory. Until WWII all teaching in public grade schools was by “rote”. as was much in college. If we try for simple cause and effect, belief in our values has diminished as new methods of teaching have become popular. I doubt that’s true, of course.

      1. Well there have to be some factors underpinning this. Having role models like the current President does nothing to help. This article doesn’t really give the reasons for what is occurring.

      2. Ivan,

        “Having role models like the current President does nothing to help.”

        I doubt that our values are influenced much by our presidents. Having taught Scouts for 15+ years, I wonder what does mold people’s values. Nothing superficial, I suspect. (Side note: there is a lot of research showing the effectiveness of the presidency as a “bully pulpit” is minimal).

        “This article doesn’t really give the reasons for what is occurring.”

        Good research, social or physical science, is narrowly focused. Each paper is a brick laid upon previous bricks. This paper is appropriate for where we are in this process: problem identification. Lots more money will be needed to fund research telling us “why” (it’s among the most complex and difficult of questions).

  2. I wonder if some of this is due to childhood exposure to “free speech” primarily seeming to come up in the context of “We have to allow uncontrolled campaign donations because to do otherwise will go against free speech.” Kind of a reaction formation, an internalization of a hypocrisy.

    It’s stupid as hell, of course, but it’s like the helpful side effect of right-wing mismanagement – examples they can use to argue that government is corrupt and can’t be trusted!

    1. SF,

      “We have to allow uncontrolled campaign donations because to do otherwise will go against free speech.”

      I believe that values are instilled pretty early in children’s lives, long before children learn anything about “campaign contributions.”

      You comment, and Ivan’s above, are important reminders that we’re not going to fix this by guessing at the cause. Some serious research is needed to learn what’s happening.

    2. Yeah, it’s a good point. Though I do think the specific attitude to free speech in the abstract is a pretty advanced piece of reasoning…

    3. What I mean is that the idea of free speech in the relatively abstract political sense is a pretty complex idea. As opposed to a simpler level of “people should be allowed to say what they want, and nobody should stop them” – witness, whether mendaciously or authentically, all the people complaining of suppression because (for any of a thousand reasons) they are not getting a due audience.

      Now, this is not so complicated that it requires an advanced degree to get. I believe the idea is entirely transmittable to students around middle school years. But civics education seems to have fallen into the toilet, so people don’t get introduced to the idea, and sitting down to really wrap your head around something does take time and energy – and of course now different readings of “free speech” are partizan issues.

      1. SF,

        “What I mean is that the idea of free speech in the relatively abstract political sense is a pretty complex idea.”

        Well, the underlying theory is complex — as with political and moral calculus. But the idea is basic, obvious, and can be taught to 12 year olds. I know that from 15 years as a Boy Scout leader teaching the three Citizenship merit badges.

        Your second point is the big one: how has this happened? I’m skeptical that schools are responsible, or that much of American’s core beliefs come primarily from teachers. But that’s just me guessing. Research is needed.

    4. My best guess would be that this is something you pick up by the environment around you, and there are fewer examples of complex, thoughtful patriotism generally. You have the borderline pagan flag-worship that holds The Troops sacred (while cutting funding to the actual live troops) and that is more or less it, with occasional bursts upwards.

      I was not a big fan of Hillary (tho I preferred her greatly to the alternatives) but I genuinely loved how all-American the DNC convention was last year.

  3. Anyone looked at demographics for students free speech support? Among adults support for free speech is highest among whites, then blacks. Latinos and Asians lower. Maybe the kids are culturally just like their parents, it is the demographics that have changed.

  4. The First Amendment limits government action not the activities of private individuals in the practice of public discourse. When government suppresses an individual’s right to speak out, that’s a violation, not when those in the audience shout down a NAZI.

    1. Ed,

      Yes, that’s technically right. But missing the point. “Free speech” is a value. The First Amendment is an expression — or implementation — of that value. Everybody knows this, but speaks about it in a sloppy fashion. We refer to the Constitution when we are actually referring to the values it expresses.

      There is a deeper truth to this. The values exist deeply in America in part because of our allegiance and kind of reverence for the Constitution. They are tied together. We lose the values and the Constitution becomes a powerless piece of paper.

      There were many pretty words in the Constitutions of the USSR (they got prettier with each version). My favorite was Chapter II Article 4 of the first version: “Each one of the member Republics retains the right to freely withdraw from the Union.” They were “Republics.” They had the “right” to leave! It didn’t mention the secret police and army’s tanks role in the process.

  5. Harold Blumenthal

    You have spotlighted the key point, but most of your readers are missing it. The kids need to already be formed as human thinkers before they ever get to college. Most are not. Most millenial students are almost fully at the mercy of professors, staffers, and administrators, like putty in their hands. That is very hazardous in today’s academic monoculture of thought.

    The soundness of pre-college education and pre-college values will allow students to stand up to the pressure cooker atmosphere of professor and administration indoctrination.

    1. Harold,

      “The kids need to already be formed as human thinkers before they ever get to college. ”

      Exactly! As you note, many readers didn’t get it. I rewrite the summary to make this clearer.

      Note: I’ve long suspected that many commenters post on the basis of the title. Many on the basis of the summary. Many on the basis of a quick skim. And a few after reading the post.

  6. I think liberal millenials and most conservatives value different flavors of free speech. Conservatives pushed back very hard on the take a knee during the National Anthem version of free speech. Conservatives are quick to condemn art, music, and film. Robert Mapplethorpe?

    In the post WW-II world, hasn’t the white supremist point of view been completely discredited? These folks aren’t actual Nazis (right?), but they seem to be advocates for some of the more awful Nazi values that resulted in horrific outcomes. Some liberal millenials see this as a violation of their core American values and resort to violence. Kind of like beating the shit out of a gay guy because he represents the opposite of your core values.

    Most liberals are not throwing punches at conservative speakers. Most conservatives aren’t beating up homosexuals.

    1. Peter,

      “Conservatives are quick to condemn art, music, and film. Robert Mapplethorpe?”

      What are you saying? Condemning art is free speech. Are you conflating that with suppressing the speech of others?

      “In the post WW-II world, hasn’t the white supremist point of view been completely discredited?”

      Yes, but that’s not what we’re seeing today. The Left has said that racial ethnic identity (with gender) is a key factor — and that that they have the right to segregated groups and facilities. So some whites also adopt the same belief. Good for the goose, good for the gander. Everyone gets equal treatment under the law.

      That’s not “white supremacism”, which would be claiming rights denied to others.

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  8. This is largely happening because the administrators took over colleges, and started to chase income rather than aiming to give an education or serve the public. In this system the students are customers and can demand things of the faculty. The college in exchange makes a lot of money teaching affordably arragned courses to liberal arts students.

    However the kids usually end up deep in debt and acquire little marketable skills. They may also suffer from false confidence politically, as their victories in the college arena were built on the fact that they were paying customers. They are unlikely to be in that position in the future, and they will be played by politcians and corporations takign advantage of their false sense of power.

    Free speech is a peace treaty. Without it politics is made on Might Makes Right basis and that will lead to a weak and broken society.

    1. Tony,

      “This is largely happening because the administrators took over colleges”

      (1) Surveys show that students entering college already have illiberal views. Which makes sense, because many values are set by age 18.

      (2) I don’t see the connection between the factors you mention and student’s beliefs about free speech.

    2. I’m told by a reliable source – the most American of sources, a British right-wing politician – that there is no “public,” only individuals and families… something like that.

    3. 18-20 year olds are idiots. In the past the college and the uni were in the position of power and the faculty would define the school as a place of learning and exchange of ideas. Didn’t like it? Too bad, deal or get out.

      Now that they are customers the kids are in the position of power. So some highly profitable liberal arts students start to protest, the administrators side with the students rather than faculty, because students bring in the money, faculty costs money. Same as any business.

      1. Tony,

        “So some highly profitable liberal arts students start to protest, the administrators side with the students”

        I don’t believe that is correct. Administrator have little enthusiasm for siding with conservative students.

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