Article Wrongfully Asserts That Brookings Survey Was Contradicted

To the Editor:

I would like to provide some more context to your recent article, “Only 1 Percent of Students Would Consider Disrupting Speakers Violently, Survey Finds” (The Chronicle, October 11), which discussed the results from a recent survey from the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education (FIRE). The Chronicle article asserted that the finding “contradicts” the results of a survey I published through the Brookings Institution in which 19 percent of respondents stated that they agreed with the actions of a student group in the following scenario:

“A public university invites a very controversial speaker to an on-campus event. The speaker is known for making offensive and hurtful statements. A student group opposed to the speaker uses violence to prevent the speaker from speaking. Do you agree or disagree that the student group’s actions are acceptable?”

It’s important to underscore that FIRE asked a very different question than I did. FIRE asked if respondents, themselves, would engage in violent action. By contrast, my survey asked whether respondents would agree with the acceptability of violent action taken by someone else.

It is much better, when comparing surveys, to compare answers to the same question. And such a comparison is indeed available:

In late September an Economist/YouGov survey of 1,500 American adults asked exactly the same question as in my survey, and, on balance, got consistent answers among the youngest population group considered (ages 18-29). In my survey, the results were: Agree: 19 percent; Disagree: 81 percent. In the Economist/YouGov survey, which, unlike in my survey, also had an option to answer “not sure,” the results among respondents in the 18-29 age category were: Agree strongly or agree somewhat: 14 percent; Disagree strongly or disagree somewhat: 67 percent; Not sure: 19 percent.

Thus, in the Economist/YouGov survey, in response to the violence question, fully a third of respondents in the 18-29 age group didn’t affirmatively disagree with the use of violence to silence speech. That itself is arguably as disturbing as a finding that 19 percent (or 14 percent) affirmatively agree with the use of violence.

Even this comparison isn’t true apples to apples, as the Economist/YouGov survey results were for 18- to 29-year-olds — only some of whom were presumably college students. But it is an important additional data point nonetheless.

In addition, there is another important result relating to violence and speech that was recently published: In September, a McLaughlin & Associates survey sponsored by the William F. Buckley Jr. Program at Yale asked a national sample of 800 undergraduates whether they agreed with the statement: “If someone is using hate speech or making racially charged comments, physical violence can be justified to prevent this person from espousing their hateful views.”  Thirty percent of the respondents to that question stated that they agreed.

Views of college students — and more generally young people — regarding the potential use of violence to silence speech are of profound importance. The dialogue on this issue will be more effective if it is informed by results from multiple surveys.

John Villasenor
Professor of Engineering and Public Policy
University of California at Los Angeles

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