Last week, video of a disruptive protest interfering with yet another university speaking event spread across social media. This time, the location of the disruption was San Francisco State University and the target was former University of Kentucky swimmer Riley Gaines. The video showed Gaines, who was attempting to deliver a speech opposing the participation of transgender athletes in women’s sports, being cornered in a hallway by protesters chanting “Trans rights are human rights.” Although it was not captured in the video and no formal charges have been filed yet, Gaines claims she was “physically hit twice by a man.”

How widespread are the beliefs among college students that underpin the kinds of disruptive action that took place at San Francisco State last week? Are these beliefs evenly distributed across the campus community or are they disproportionately concentrated among certain groups within the student body?

The answers to these questions might dictate what kinds of educational interventions, if any, universities choose to undertake in response to the so-called “free speech crisis on college campuses.” Unfortunately, hard data about how college students feel about shout downs, physical blockades and violence in response to campus speech has been in much shorter supply than baseless speculation.

Fortunately, recent survey data from the Foundation for Individual Rights and Expression (FIRE) helps shed some much-needed light on student beliefs about the acceptability of shout-downs, physical blockades and violence as a response to offensive speech. This data shows that the groups that have (arguably) benefitted most from robust norms emphasizing the value of free speech, political tolerance and peaceful protest – progressives and members of national racial, gender and sexual minority groups – are now the least supportive of them. Additionally, the data reveal significantly greater willingness to endorse disruptive action as a means of preventing campus speech among Ethnic and Gender Studies students than among students of any other major. If universities would like to bolster the free speech climates of their campuses, they must do so in a way that takes these large (and possibly growing) attitudinal disparities into account.

Measuring Support for Disruptive Conduct

Every year since 2020, FIRE has conducted a nationwide survey of college students as part of their efforts to rank the free speech climates of American universities. The 2022 survey included 45,000 enrolled students at over 200 colleges around the country. In addition to questions about demographic characteristics (race, gender, sexual orientation, etc.), political identities (e.g. political ideology, partisanship, etc.) and areas of academic study (i.e. college majors), the FIRE survey also asked respondents “How acceptable [always, sometimes, rarely, never] would you say it is for students to engage in the following action to protest a campus speaker?”:

  1. Shouting down a speaker to prevent them from speaking on campus.
  2. Blocking other students from attending a campus speech.
  3. Using violence to stop a campus speech.

The FIRE data allows us to assess which kinds of college students believe in the acceptability of disruptive action in response to campus speech. Below, I focus on attitudes towards “using violence” because violence is the most extreme response to disagreeable speech and endorsement of its use represents the largest departure from liberal norms of tolerance and free expression. As I discuss below, however, the individual-level correlates of attitudes towards “using violence” are essentially the same as the correlates of attitudes towards other forms of disruptive conduct (shouting down speakers and blocking attendees). Support for disruption in response to speech, in other words, is a general disposition and not dependent on the nature of the disruption.

The first thing to point out is that support for violence, overall, is rare. Indeed, only 6.8% of college students said that violence was “always” (1.7%) or “sometimes” (5.1%) acceptable in order to “stop a campus speech.” By contrast, 78% of college students said violence is “never” acceptable.

Figure 1 – Acceptability of “Using Violence” by Major

Yet, some groups of students are more likely than others to endorse violence as an acceptable means of preventing campus speech. Figure 1 shows differences across broad categories of academic concentration. Generally speaking, students majoring in Ethnic and Gender studies (e.g. “African American Studies,” “Ethnicity and Race Studies,” “Women’s and Gender Studies (and Sexuality),” etc.) are significantly more likely than students from every other major to say that violence is “acceptable.” While nearly one-third of Ethnic and Gender studies majors say that using violence is “always” (3.1%), “sometimes” (9.9%) or “rarely” (19.6%) acceptable in order to stop a speech from being delivered on campus, only one-fifth of Humanities, Visual and Performing Arts, STEM, Social Sciences, Education, and “undecided” or “other” majors said violence is ever “acceptable.”

It should be noted that these aggregate major categories mask considerable variation across specific majors. A majority (56%) of African American Studies majors (N=464), for example, said that “using violence” is acceptable in order to stop a campus speech. Similarly, more than 35% of Women’s, Gender and Sexuality Studies (N=189) also believe that violence is “always,” “sometimes” or “rarely” acceptable. Standing in stark contrast to students from these majors, less than 15% of Public Policy (N=155), Fine Arts (N=236), and Nursing students (N=1,127) believe that violence is ever an “acceptable” response to campus speech.

Figure 2 – Acceptability of Violence by Gender Identity

There are even larger differences in views about “using violence to stop a campus speech” based on gender identity. As Figure 2 shows, nearly two-thirds of agender students (N=411) and approximately half of genderqueer (N=810), non-binary (N=1,249) and students who were unsure about their gender identity (N=498), believe that violence can be an acceptable response to a speech on campus. Only 20% of men and women share this belief.

Figure 3 – Acceptability of Violence by Race and Ethnicity

Differences in support for violence based on race are much smaller than differences based on gender identity. While non-white support for violence is low overall, Asian (25.7%), Hispanic (25.1%), Black (24.3%), and students reporting “other” racial identities (26.9%), were significantly more likely than white students (17.1%) to say that violence is “always,” “sometimes” or “rarely” acceptable (Figure 3).

Figure 4 – Acceptability of Violence by Sexual Orientation

As Figure 4 shows, there are also significant differences based on sexual orientation, with students identifying as gay, lesbian, bisexual or “other,” expressing more support for violence than students identifying as heterosexual.

Figure 5 – Acceptability of “Using Violence” by Political Ideology

Ideology also appears to play a role in shaping how students view violent responses to campus speech. Left-leaning students (i.e. those identifying as “Democratic Socialists” and “Liberals”) are more accepting of “using violence” than moderate and right-leaning students (i.e. those identifying as “Conservative” and “Libertarian”).

Figure 6 – OLS Regression Coefficients Predicting Attitudes towards “Using Violence”

In addition to being correlated with support for “using violence,” college major, gender identity, race, sexual orientation and political ideology are also likely related to each other. It is possible, therefore, that some of the relationships illustrated in the above graphs are spurious. In order to account for this possibility, Figure 6 shows the results of a multivariate OLS regression model predicting attitudes towards “using violence to stop a campus speech.” More specifically, the coefficients in Figure 6 show the effect of moving from the “excluded” category of each variable to the category listed in the right-hand column of the plot. For example, the coefficients for each major (e.g. “Education,” “Business,” “Humanities,” “Visual/Performing Arts,” etc.) indicate the effect of majoring in one of those fields relative to majoring in Ethnic or Gender Studies. Similarly, the coefficients for “man” and “woman” show the effect of identifying as a man or a woman relative to identifying with one of the other gender identities (i.e. “agender,” “genderqueer,” “non-binary,” “unsure”). The coefficients under the headings “Race,” Ideology,” and “Sexual Orientation,” show the effect of each category relative to “Whites,” “Moderates,” and “Heterosexuals,” respectively. Negative coefficients indicate that individuals in the labeled category are less likely to say that violence is acceptable and positive coefficients indicate that individuals in the labeled category are more likely to say that violence is acceptable.

As Figure 6 shows, the relationships identified in Figures 1 through 5 remain after the inclusion of statistical controls. To be more precise, Ethnic and Gender Studies majors, left-leaning students, and members of national minority groups (non-whites, those identifying as something other than male or female and gays, lesbians and bisexuals) are more likely to believe in the acceptability of using violence in order to stop a campus speech.

This pattern of results is not unique to “using violence.” With a small number of exceptions, the same basic set of relationships hold for views on the acceptability of “blocking other students from attending a campus speech” and “shouting down a speaker to prevent them from speaking” (Figure 7 and Figure 8).

Figure 7 – OLS Regression Coefficients Predicting Attitudes towards “Blocking other students”

Figure 8 – OLS Regression Coefficients Predicting Attitudes towards “Shouting down a speaker”

The Shifting Foundations of Political Tolerance

In some ways, these findings are not surprising. While groups associated with the political left have historically been more supportive of free expression and tolerance, an ongoing reevaluation of the harms associated with speech has led many to support censorship measures in response to what they now describe as “hate speech.” Some have even come to view free speech as an impediment to “the correction of unjust distributions produced by the market and the dismantling of power hierarchies based on traits like race, nationality, gender, class, and sexual orientation.” As Henry Louis Gates explained in a 1993 article entitled “Let Them Talk: Why Civil Liberties Pose No Threat to Civil Rights,” concerns about “hate speech” have, unfortunately, “caused many civil rights activists to rethink their allegiance to the very amendment that licensed the protests and the agitation that galvanized the nation in a recent, bygone era.” Now, Gates laments, “Civil liberties are regarded by many as a chief obstacle to civil rights.”

Recent empirical work confirms Gates’ earlier insights. As Chong, Citrin and Levy’s extensive study of public opinion between 1976 and 2020 concludes, “Tolerance of much offensive speech is no longer significantly greater among college-educated individuals than those who did not graduate college. In a stunning reversal, liberals are now consistently less tolerant than conservatives of a wide range of controversial speech…The emergence of equality as a counterweight to freedom has upended the established correlates of tolerance identified in almost all prior research.”

It is essential to keep in mind, however, that the strong majority of students, even among those groups that are more likely to support violence, blocks and shout-downs, are opposed to disruptive action. The differences in attitudes towards disruption also need to be considered compositionally. While ethnic and gender study majors and members of national minority groups are disproportionately supportive of disruptive action in response to speech they find disagreeable, they are a relatively small part of most campus communities. Indeed, Ethnic and Gender Studies are one the smallest major categories across the 200+ universities in the FIRE survey (making up only 3.6% of all students). Similarly, while agender, genderqueer, non-binary and unsure students are all more than twice as likely to endorse violence, they collectively constitute only 2.9% of college students.

All of this is to say that student attitudes towards disruptive conduct may not be the largest threats to speech on college campuses. Indeed, administrative restrictions, legislative interference and faculty reprisals, may pose equally, if not more, significant challenges to the culture of universities. Moreover, universities may not want to promote free speech as a value or encourage their students to passively “hear out” a speaker advancing “offensive” arguments. If they do, however, they should develop and implement targeted educational interventions that are likely to appeal to the unique interests, preferences and backgrounds of those students that are (at the moment) the least likely to endorse these ideals.