The Role of Libraries in Free Campus Speech

Academic Freedom, Civil Liberties, Diversity, Education, First Amendment, General Interest, News Literacy, Political Viewpoint

By: Lisa Hoover

free speech and protestCampus free speech related to academic institutions has been much in the news in recent years, from the recent walkout related to gun violence, to the controversies regarding cancellations of speeches by conservative speakers at UC Berkley in 2017. Campus libraries have seen their share of controversy, including a protest at the UC Santa Cruz Library that disrupted a College Republicans meeting. But what do college students themselves actually think about free speech? And how can campus libraries accommodate these beliefs while still protecting core library values?

This month the Knight Foundation and the polling company Gallup released the results of a study on college student attitudes toward free speech. The study clearly shows that students value free speech; 90% say protecting free speech rights are extremely important to democracy. (Chokshi, 2018)

Unfortunately, the survey also showed that fewer students felt First Amendment rights were secure today than in the 2016 version of this study. (Knight Foundation, 2018)

students believe First Amendment rights are less secureInterestingly, in the 2016 study, 90% agree that the press is “at least as important to democracy today, if not more so, than it was 20 years ago.” On the flip side, though, only 42% had “a great deal or fair amount of trust in the press to ‘report the news accurately and fairly.’” (Knight Foundation, 2016) Fortunately, this number increased to 50% in the 2018 study. This lack of faith in the press, combined with the drop in students who feel the First Amendment is secure, raises significant concerns.

Students also see tension between free expression and inclusion, with almost 90% saying free speech is very or extremely important to democracy, but more than 80 also saying that promoting an inclusive and diverse society is critical. Perhaps critically, “when forced to choose, a majority of students said that diversity and inclusion were more important than free speech,” particularly among minority and female students. (Chokshi, 2018)

This perhaps help explain the potential contradiction in embracing free speech in some contexts, yet canceling appearances of conservative speakers like Milo Yiannopoulos and Ann Coulter.

The study also found that a “majority of students in every demographic drew a line for hate speech, saying that it does not deserve First Amendment protection,” (Chokshi, 2018) which seems to disagree with US Supreme Court precedent in cases such as Snyder v. Phelps. This belief also means students support campus restrictions on racial slurs and costumes that promote stereotypes. (Knight Foundation, 2018) However, only 27% agreed in 2016 that colleges should be able to restrict expression of potentially offensive political views. (Knight Foundation, 2016) Can we have both?

students say free speech, inclusion highly important to democracySimilarly, a majority (57-67%, down from 66-81% in 2016) of students feel that our First Amendment rights are secure or very secure, yet 61% (up from 54% in 2016) say the campus climate prevents some from saying what they believe because others might find it offensive. (Knight Foundation, 2018) I am guessing the UC Santa Cruz College Republicans would agree.

Similarly, while 70% of white students felt the right to peaceably assemble was secure, only 39% of black college students agreed in 2016. (Knight Foundation, 2016) Can we have true campus free speech and inclusivity if students feel they cannot speak up or assemble in their community? This seems like an especially pressing question after the College Republicans at UC Santa Cruz were faced with protests regarding their meeting in the library, calling them “fascists,” “racists,” and “white supremacists.” (Parke, 2017)

Interestingly, the study found that 92% of students felt politically liberal students could share their opinions freely on campus, but only 69% believed politically conservative students could so so. (Knight Foundation, 2018)

So what does this mean for campus libraries? First, it shows that students do support the core library values of free speech, intellectual freedom, and inclusion. Secondly, I think the finding that only 50% trust the press reinforces the need to help students identify appropriate and reliable sources – not just in an academic context, but also with regard to the media.

I think the most interesting finding for libraries is the finding that 61% of students feel that the campus climate can prevent students from speaking up, and that less than 40% of black students in 2016 felt that the right to assemble is secure. I think this highlights the need for libraries to continue to provide a safe space for all intellectual discussion and ideas and to provide equal access, even to groups that may hold a minority or unpopular view — including those of conservative campus members and conservative speakers.

I am reminded of an excellent quote from a speech in the movie The American President:

“America isn’t easy. America is advanced citizenship. You’ve gotta want it bad, ’cause it’s gonna put up a fight. It’s gonna say, ‘You want free speech? Let’s see you acknowledge a man whose words make your blood boil, who’s standing center stage and advocating at the top of his lungs that which you would spend a lifetime opposing at the top of yours.’ … Now show me that, defend that, celebrate that in your classrooms. Then you can stand up and sing about the land of the free.” 

However, the study also raises questions that do not have easy answers. Can we realistically restrict racial slurs and still allow potentially offensive political views? While most people probably support a ban on racial slurs, what is a racial slur, and where do we draw the line? Similarly, how do we protect both free speech and inclusion when the two may be at odds? Do we have to pick one over the other? Has the cultural shift toward inclusion come at the expense of free speech? And if so, is that a trade we want to make? How do we support conservative speech (or any controversial speech), but also ensure student safety, which was cited as a concern in the Berkeley cancellations?

Perhaps the most important thing librarians can do is to continue to be a part of the dialogue on how we manage these issues and how we balance competing interests to ensure intellectual freedom and inclusion for all patrons, and to be mindful of these issues in program scheduling, meeting space usage, and collection development choices and policies.


Chokshi, N. (2018). What College Students Really Think About Free Speech, The New York Times, retrieved March 26 at

Knight Foundation (2016). Survey Infographic, Knight Foundation, retrieved March 26 at

Knight Foundation (2018). Free Expression on Campus: What College Students Think About First Amendment Issues, Knight Foundation, retrieved March 26 at

Parke, C. (2017). UC Santa Cruz College Republicans Meeting Disrupted by Leftist Protesters, Three Arrested, Fox News, retrieved March 26 at


Lisa HooverLisa Hoover is a public services librarian at Clarkson University and an adjunct professor in criminal justice at SUNY Canton. In addition to her MLS, Lisa holds a JD and an MA in political science. She began her career as an editor and then manager for a local news organization, adjunct teaching in her “spare time.” She teaches courses in criminal procedure, criminal law and constitutional law. She is passionate about 1st Amendment issues. She recently began her career as a librarian, starting at Clarkson University in June 2017 teaching information literacy sessions and offering reference services. Lisa and her husband Lee live in Norwood, New York with their cats Hercules and Pandora and pug-mix Alexstrasza (Alex). Find her on Twitter @LisaHoover01.

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