The State of Free Speech and Tolerance in America

71% of Americans Say Political Correctness Has Silenced Discussions Society Needs to Have, 58% Have Political Views They’re Afraid to Share
Freedom of speech and First Amendment issues have taken on a growing, some might even say unprecedented, importance and focus.  In our personal lives, on campuses, in political discourse, in news coverage, during the national anthem at a football game, and more, freedom of speech has become a heated, multi-faceted issue.

Recognizing this, the Cato Institute recently conducted a comprehensive national survey to examine the current depth and width of the issue, which is now available online in full

. The results provide a highly compelling portrait of the state of free speech in America today.

The Cato 2017 Free Speech and Tolerance Survey

, a new Cato Institute national poll of 2,300 U.S. adults, finds that nearly three-fourths (71%) of Americans believe that political correctness has silenced important discussions our society needs to have.

The consequences, show the survey, are personal, impacting an individual’s view of their own freedom of expression—58% of Americans, for example, believe the political climate prevents them from sharing their own political beliefs. Further, a solid majority (59%) of Americans think people should be allowed to express unpopular opinions in public, even those deeply offensive to others. On the other hand, 40% think government should prevent hate speech. Despite this, the survey also found Americans willing to censor, regulate, or punish a wide variety of speech and expression they personally find offensive.

Other report highlights include:

  • 59% Americans oppose hate speech bans, but 79% say hate speech is morally unacceptable.
  • Two-thirds (66%) say colleges aren’t doing enough to teach the value of free speech.
  • 65% say colleges should discipline students who shut down invited campus speakers.
  • 63% of Republicans say journalists are an enemy of the American people.
  • 58% of Democrats say employers should punish employees for offensive Facebook posts.
  • 53% of Republicans support stripping citizenship from flag burners.

Americans also can’t agree what speech is hateful, offensive, or simply a political opinion:

  • 39% of conservatives believe it’s hate speech to say the police are racist; only 17% of liberals agree.
  • 80% of liberals say it’s hateful or offensive to say illegal immigrants should be deported; only 36% of conservatives agree.
  • 90% of liberals say it’s hateful or offensive to say homosexuality is a sin, while 47% of conservatives agree.

“These data show why censoring offensive speech is difficult—Americans can’t agree what speech is offensive or shouldn’t be allowed,” says Cato’s Director of Polling Dr. Emily Ekins. “What is deeply offensive to one person may simply be a political opinion to another. These data show that if we silence speech that any number of people find offensive, we will shut down a wide variety of important political debates.”

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