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Constitution Day 2017: First Amendment Poll Part One: Freedom of Speech


Malala Yousafsai quotation(Photo credit)

Update 9/19/2017:  for an interesting parallel to the Trinity straw poll on the First Amendment, below, see the new Brookings Survey Results of the views of college students on Freedom of Speech.

September 17 every year is Constitution Day, commemorating the date in 1787 when the Founders signed the new Constitution of the United States.  230 years later, we’re still arguing about what the Constitution means for this still-young nation, and the very fact of the many arguments is a sign of civic good health.  Congress, in its wisdom, mandates that schools, colleges and universities observe Constitution Day each year, and so here at Trinity we’ve taken a straw poll to gather the opinions of our campus community on that most controversial of all parts of the Constitution — the First Amendment.  The answers are so numerous and statements so rich that I will divide the poll into three separate blogs — this first blog is on Freedom of Speech.  Later this week I will provide the straw poll answers to the questions on Freedom of the Press, and then Freedom of Religion.

If you did not take the poll but want to weigh in with your opinions, please use the comment box below.

First, as a reminder, here’s the First Amendment to the Constitution of the United States:

First AmendmentFreedom of Speech is the most essential right for democracy to flourish, and yet, free speech also seems to be one of the most controversial of all of the rights guaranteed in the Bill of Rights.  We asked the Trinity community to answer several questions about the First Amendment’s guarantee of Freedom of Speech:

I believe that Freedom of Speech…Should be Absolute at All Times and in All Places

72.9% of all respondents said they “strongly agree” or “agree” with this statement.  However, here’s what’s very interesting:

67.93% of the faculty and staff replied “strongly agree” or “agree” with 18.87% at “strongly agree.”  On the other hand, 30.19% of faculty and staff said they “disagree” with this statement.


79.6% of students replied “strongly agree” or “agree” with 38.78% of students at “strongly agree” which is almost twice the rate of faculty and staff.  And, just 18.37% of students “disagree” with the statement.

Faculty/staff comments include:

“Hate speech is not and should not be protected by the 1st Amendment.”

“In the United States, Freedom of Speech is not absolute at all times and in all places.  Our government recognizes certain categories that are given lesser protections by enacting reasonable time, place and manner restrictions on speech.  By example, it is unlawful to yell fires in a movie theater as it violates the law against inciting imminent lawless action.  Other examples of restricted speech include slander and libel.  As a matter of protecting community standards, there should always be exceptions to absolute Freedom of Speech.”

Several other faculty/staff commenters noted the oft-quoted statement of Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes in the 1919 case of Schenck v. U.S.:  “The most stringent protection of free speech would not protect a man in falsely shouting fire in a theatre and causing a panic.”  But commentators have criticized the frequent citation to Holmes to justify limitations on free speech because Schenck was overturned in 1969 in Brandenburg v. Ohio, a case involving a demonstration by the Ku Klux Klan.

Student comments:

“I agree that there is a lot of hate and ignorance.  It is a bitter pill to swallow but freedom of speech is a freedom that thousands died for and are continuing to die for today.  We might not always like what we hear but if we are wise, we listen and we learn.”

“Freedom of Speech should extend to all places, however, should not be absolute if that speech incites violence.

The next part of the question:

I believe that Freedom of Speech… May be limited by the government for good reasons

Among all respondents, 46.15% said “strongly agree” or “agree with this statement.

50.98% of faculty and staff said “strongly agree” or “agree.”

43.75% of students said “strongly agree” or “agree.”

Student comments include:

“Only a tainted government would cower in front of the truth.”

“This should not include the current efforts by the president to invoke fear in citizens/journalists for telling the truth.”

Faculty/Staff comments include:

“The problem becomes when the government determines what is ‘good reasons’.”

“Good reasons for whom?”

“A bit tricky because it gives government (unnamed persons) power over citizens, but limiting free speech can prevent great harm and violence.”

Next question:

I believe that Freedom of Speech…Must be limited if the speech provokes violence

More agreement on this question.  77.56% of all respondents said “strongly agree” or “agree.”

77.36% of faculty/staff said “strongly agree” or “agree.”

75.51% of students said “strongly agree” or “agree.”

Student comments:

“What about speech over the internet in which people can post graphic, violent or provocative statements with no consequences?”

“We should always say what we want no matter what.  That’s why it’s called FREEDOM OF SPEECH.”

Faculty/Staff comments:

“A speech may provoke violence without having to be hate speech.  Differences of opinion can cause violence.”

“The price we pay for freedom of speech is allowing opinions we do not agree with including, say, the KKK.”

Next question:

I believe that Freedom of Speech…Should be limited if the speaker promotes hatred against other people

Big differences of opinion on this one.  68.87% of all respondents said “strongly agree” or “agree.”

60.38% of faculty said “strongly agree” or “agree” with 26.42% at “disagree” and 11.32% at “strongly disagree.”


79.17% of students said “strongly agree” or “agree” with 12.50% at “disagree” and 6.25% at “strongly disagree.”

What is the explanation for the fact that a large majority of students in the first question were adamant about the absolute nature of freedom of speech (79.6%) but now are equally adamant (79.17%) about limitations on hate speech? A question worth probing in follow-up discussions.  I suggest that a dimension of this divergence is that the first question is more abstract, but this question is personal — students may have experienced hate speech directed toward themselves or others.

Student comments:

“I’d rather know who has hatred so I can be more cautious around them.”

“I believe in our First Amendment but the promotion of hatred is not only intolerable but also unacceptable.”

Faculty/Staff comments:

“On the fence on this one — I don’t like it but I do believe that people should be able to express unpopular opinions.”

“Morally, I think people should not promote hatred, but I think they should legally be able to say what they want.  It is up to the listeners to turn their backs on the hatred being spewed and attempt to engage the speaker in a meaningful debate.”

“We need to own this one.  People have the right to speak; however, we have our free agency and shouldn’t go to places where this type of talk is promoted.  Also, we need to continue to educate people in order for them to understand that by going to a place where this type of talk is allowed, no matter what we think we are, by going there, even if because we are curious, we are silent partners in this type of hate speech.”

Last question on Freedom of Speech:

I believe that Freedom of Speech… Should be limited if the speaker uses profanity

Well, this is interesting!  While the majority of everybody — 66.36% — “disagrees” or “strongly disagrees” with limitations on speech because of profanity, there’s another clear divergence among students, faculty and staff, and not what you might think…

66.36% of faculty/staff “disagree” or “strongly disagree” with the statement, with 28.4% at “strongly disagree.”

55.11% of students “disagree” or “strongly disagree” with the statement, with 16.33% at “strongly disagree.”

Student comments:

“Profanity can be offensive to some.”

“Never. We say what we want.”

Faculty/Staff comments:

“While not eloquent, profane speech is still free speech.”

“I use profanity regularly — not in public speaking, but it can express some things very well.”

Finally, a note about current controversies:

We did not ask about this in the straw poll, but freedom of speech on college and university campuses is a big issue these days.  Controversies broke wide open last year over the appearance of Charles Murray at Middlebury, and cancellations of provocative speakers like Ann Coulter and Milo Yiannopoulos at Berkeley.  Harvard has cancelled a guest fellowship for Chelsea Manning after an outcry against allowing her to speak; the outcry focused on her criminal behavior in leaking US documents to Wikileaks. Last week I was part of a video interview with the Chronicle of Higher Education discussing the competing issues of freedom of speech and campus safety when a speech provokes violence.  There’s also a good analysis of the issues in Inside Higher Education.

Closer to home, just this week, Jesuit Father James Martin was disinvited from giving a talk at Theological College of CUA because of protests on social media from conservative agitators who dislike his recent book Building a Bridge that discusses how the LGBT community and the Catholic Church can come together with greater sensitivity and openness to each other.  I’m reading the book and it’s hardly provocative, rather more of a meditation on how people should relate to each other in Christian community — but for some right-wing pundits even the suggestion that LGBT people deserve respect and compassion seems to evoke howls of anger; perhaps those pundits need to examine their own consciences about how they treat people.  The Theological College decision provoked Catholic University President John Garvey to write a very clear and strong statement endorsing Freedom of Speech and this seems like a good note to end this blog; President Garvey wrote:

“The campaigns by various groups to paint Fr. Martin’s talk as controversial reflect the same pressure being applied by the left for universities to withdraw speaker invitations. Universities and their related entities should be places for the free, civil exchange of ideas. Our culture is increasingly hostile to this idea. It is problematic that individuals and groups within our Church demonstrate this same inability to make distinctions and to exercise charity.”

Next UP:  Freedom of the Press!  I’ll be posting those answers on Tuesday… Thanks to all who participated in the straw poll!  If you have comments on any of this please use the comment box below.

Follow me on Twitter @TrinityPrez

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Patricia A. McGuire, President, Trinity, 125 Michigan Ave. NE, Washington, DC 20017
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