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First Amendment fact-check

American college students do not understand the First Amendment’s free speech provisions, according to an August survey of 1,500 students on four major U.S. campuses.

When asked if the use of violence to prevent a speaker known for “hurtful” language from speaking was acceptable, 19 percent of students agreed. That number may seem relatively low, but survey author John Villasenor, a visiting professor of law at UCLA, said “any number significantly above zero is concerning.”

When asked if the First Amendment protected “hate speech,” 44 percent of students said no, 39 percent said yes, and 16 percent said they did not know. By a slim margin of 51 to 49 percent, students agreed it was acceptable to shout down speakers known for “offensive and hurtful statements.” And 62 percent of students incorrectly believed the First Amendment requires a counterargument be offered when controversial speakers come to campus.

Villasenor said many of the students arrive on campus with these ideas firmly in place and college administrators have a responsibility to educate them properly: “If, for example, a large fraction of college students believe, however incorrectly, that offensive speech is unprotected by the First Amendment, that view will inform the decisions they make as they move into positions of increasing authority later in their careers.”

— by Bonnie Pritchett

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