Opinion: The younger you are, the less you support free speech

(Wes Bausmith / Los Angeles Times)

Some interesting news from the Pew Research Center about the attitude of American millennials (ages 18-34) toward free speech.

As part of a global survey of attitudes toward freedom of expression, Pew asked respondents if government should be able to prevent people from making offensive statements about minorities.

In general, as befits residents of a country with a 1st Amendment, American respondents were more willing than residents of other countries to say that “offensive” statements about minorities (not otherwise defined) should be legally protected. Two-thirds said people should be allowed to make such statements in public, compared with a median of 35% among the 38 nations included in the poll.


That isn’t surprising. Even many democracies allow greater restrictions on such speech than does the U.S., sometimes classifying it as “incitement to racial hatred.” (This past summer, a British columnist was questioned by police about an article she wrote in which she referred to migrants as “cockroaches.”)

But there was an interesting generational breakdown in the American findings. Pew found that 40% of respondents ages 18-34 said they agreed that offensive statements could be outlawed. By contrast, only 27% of Generation Xers (ages 35-50) said they supported controls on offensive speech. For baby boomers (ages 51-69), the number dropped to 24%.

My first thought on seeing this generation gap was to associate it with evidence that robust free speech is losing support on college campuses. Last month, I wrote about a survey showing that 21% of college students said they agreed with the statement that the 1st Amendment was “outdated” and that 35% (wrongly) said that “hate speech is NOT protected under the 1st Amendment.”

But if you drill down on the Pew numbers, it seems that college students and college graduates are less prone to support punishment of “offensive” speech than those who haven’t attended college.

Among respondents with a college degree or more, 22% said they believed that the government should be able to prevent people from making offensive statements about minorities. For those with some college, the number was 29%. For respondents with a high school diploma or less, the figure rose to 31%.

But it’s possible that the stronger support for free speech among college graduates is skewed by the responses of older graduates.


Some might view these results as an indication that millennials are more sensitive than older generations to the pain inflicted by racially insensitive comments. And isn’t that a good thing?

Perhaps so, but remember that the question wasn’t whether such statements are good or bad, but rather whether the government should be able to prevent people from making them. On that distinction hangs a lot of 1st Amendment law. Remember the earlier finding that 21% of college students said that amendment was “outdated.”

For free-speech supporters of a certain age, findings like this can be a cause of despair about the young generation (“Get off my 1st Amendment!”). But they also suggest that people my age need to do more to explain to younger generations why there must be legal protection even for what Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes called “the thought that we hate.”

Follow Michael McGough on Twitter @MichaelMcGough3