Most Americans oppose laws restricting professors from speaking in the classroom

Most Americans oppose laws that regulate how professors are allowed to speak about certain topics in college classrooms. Still, nearly one-third of people — across the political spectrum — believe professors have too much freedom to express their opinions in the classroom.

The results are from new YouGov poll, which found that only 19 percent of US adults support these laws. Among Republicans, the number is higher; 30 percent say the government should be able to regulate professors’ speech in the classroom. And 50 percent of Republicans say professors have too much freedom to express themselves in class. Older and more educated Americans are most likely to oppose these laws, and this is true among both Democrats and Republicans.

The findings reflect a sample of 7,556 US adults who responded to an online survey study this month on campus free speech. YouGov says respondents were “weighted to be representative of the US population by gender, age, race, education, US Census tract, and political party.”

Jeremy C. Young, senior director of the free-speech advocacy group PEN America, said the study’s main finding is consistent with past surveys: People who want to regulate supervisors’ speech are a “small minority.”

That fewer younger people opposed the government’s regulation of professors’ classroom speech indicates to him that more social education about the importance of free speech is needed on college campuses.

“We think that the decline in support for free speech among youth and students is mainly coming from the left,” Young said. According to Young, these students often view free speech as a tool used against social and racial justice movements. But he said there is also “a sliver of opposition” to free speech from right-wing students who see it as an excuse for college professors to express their liberal views in class.

Over the past two years, Republican-sponsored bills have increasingly targeted the discussion of race, racism and gender in public colleges. Laws are often aimed at teaching critical race theory, an academic concept that explains how racism is embedded in law and policy and has become a political punching bag for the right.

The state of Florida recently argued in a court filing that teaching by professors at public colleges is “government speech” and thus fair game, regulated by state legislatures.

This year, according to PEN America, bills that seek to restrict diversity education and limit classroom discussion of “divisive issues” have been introduced and passed at higher rates than last year. tracking such invoices in January 2021.

An analysis of August found that 39 percent of bills introduced in 2022 — which the group calls educational mandates — would target higher output, compared with 30 percent last year. Among those who passed this year are:

  • Florida’s HB 7, which prohibits public colleges from providing instructional material that “advocates, promotes, promotes, instills, or coerces” an individual to believe certain ideas about race, gender, privilege, or national origin, and requires instruction to be consistent with a list of principles of “individual liberty.”
  • South Dakota HB 1012, which prohibits public colleges from instructing students or employees in training or in the classroom to embrace certain ideas related to “dissident concepts,” such as “that an individual because of his race, color, religion, sex, ethnicity, or national origin is racist, sexist or oppressive in nature, either knowingly or unknowingly.
  • Tennessee SB 2290, which prohibits public colleges from including “disparate concepts” related to race, gender, and privilege in “seminars, workshops, trainings, and orientations.”

The bills introduced this year are also “strikingly more punitive,” according to the PEN report. Many propose financial fines and disciplinary measures, and allow lawsuits by individuals who feel they have been punished for not agreeing with “dissenting ideas.”

The YouGov survey also asked how people perceive professors’ speech and students’ speech. Sixteen percent of respondents said they thought professors had “too much” freedom to express themselves in the classroom, while only 7 percent said the same about students.

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