Crack in liberty widens

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It’s a First Amendment nightmare.

American college students, once a vanguard for free speech, are somehow tipping the scales in the opposite direction. And that could eventually erode the bedrock of freedom itself.

A new survey from the century-old Brookings Institution, unveiled Sept. 18 (http://brook.gs/2fnrhyc), included 1,500 undergraduate students from 49 states and the District of Columbia. It reveals some startling inclinations from our college student millennials. From shouting down an invited speaker to condoning violence in some situations, many of these leaders of tomorrow show a stunning disregard for free speech.

In the two examples below, students were given this hypothetical:

A public university invites a very controversial speaker to an on-campus event. The speaker is known for making offensive and hurtful statements.

The students were then asked:

A student group opposed to the speaker disrupts the speech by loudly and repeatedly shouting so that the audience cannot hear the speaker. Do you agree or disagree that the student group’s actions are acceptable?

More than half — 51 percent — agreed. Of those surveyed, 62 percent identified themselves as Democrats. But nearly four in 10 — 39 percent — who agreed that it was OK to shout down the speaker were Republicans, so this isn’t strictly a liberal vs. conservative conundrum.

The matter of violence is even more jarring. In the second example, students were asked:

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?

Almost one in five students surveyed agreed that violence would be acceptable in that situation. Twenty percent of the young Democrats surveyed agreed that violence was OK, and 22 percent of young Republicans thought violence would be justified in that instance. An interesting note: 30 percent of males and 10 percent of females surveyed said violence would be acceptable.

The study sheds some light on what might be a basic part of the problem: Students (and many other Americans, in our opinion) lack an understanding what the First Amendment is and does. A strong majority of college survey respondents said the First Amendment requires offering a counterpoint to the mythical presentation above. Of course, the First Amendment requires no such thing.

It’s easy to conclude that many college students want to stand up against what they perceive as hate speech, which is honorable in itself. But there’s a big difference between court-defined hate speech and hurtful words uttered or written by people. Until we do a better job teaching our kids about those differences and imparting a clear understanding of the U.S. Constitution and Bill of Rights — and maybe offering some refresher courses to older citizens — we should expect more violations of our nation’s principles of democracy.

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