Are students really more hostile to free speech?

Matthew SmithHead of Data Journalism
June 26, 2018, 11:00 PM GMT+0

New YouGov research finds no evidence that students are more likely to want to see speakers banned

Much has been made recently about the supposed decline of free speech on university campuses.

The media is awash with stories of students protesting against the appearance of this or that speaker at their university.

But is this a sign that free speech is in peril at British universities, or simply the actions of a noisy minority being blown out of proportion by the press?

To test whether students are less friendly towards free speech we conducted an experiment looking at whether students are more likely than the general public to believe that someone with views they find offensive should not be allowed to give a speech at a university.

We asked students and the general public whether they found each of nine controversial views offensive, and then whether or not they believed a speaker with each of those views should be allowed to give a speech at a university.

No evidence to suggest students are more hostile to free speech

The results do not find any evidence that students are more hostile to free speech than the general population.

Across the nine difference speakers, for five there was essentially no difference between the proportion of students and the general public who would ban the speaker whose views they find offensive (between 0-4 percentage points in each case).

Three speakers were more likely to be banned by students than the general public (by 8-13 percentage points), while the general public in turn is more likely to ban one speaker than students (by 16 percentage points).

Of the three speakers that students are more likely to say shouldn't be allowed to speak, one claims that vaccinations cause autism, one believes that transgender women are not 'real' women, and one believes that climate change is not caused by human actions. The one speaker that the general public are more likely to want banned believes the royal family should be abolished.

Of the five speakers that students and the general public both equally think should be prevented from speaking: one wants all religions banned; one believes terrorist attacks on Britain can be justified; one believes that God created the universe in six days; one wants all foreign migrants sent back to their countries of origin; and one is a Holocaust denier.

Photo: Getty

See the results for students here and the general public here

This research was conducted using YouGov Omnibus’s Targeted Research service, which uses the power of YouGov’s panel to reach specific target groups