Home » News » Poll: States shouldn’t limit what professors teach

By Ken Paulson and Jason Reineke, published on October 16, 2023

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Photo courtesy iStock: Drazen Zigic

Most Americans believe state governments should keep their hands off America’s college classrooms, according to polling from The Associated Press-NORC Center for Public Affairs Research and the University of Chicago Forum for Free Inquiry and Expression.

”A large majority of adults feel state governments should not be allowed to restrict what is taught at state-funded colleges and universities and most do not want university administrators interfering with what professors are teaching in the classroom,” according to the AP-NORC Center report.

Just 30 percent of those surveyed believe state governments should be able to control the curriculum, with Republicans more supportive of restrictions than Democrats. 

About 61 percent of respondents said university officials should not be able to fire a professor for using speech that some people may find offensive, while 73 percent said they should not be able to restrict the use of certain books in the classroom, according to the survey topline report.

Among other findings:

  • Despite the general support for professors, 50 percent of those polled said they shouldn’t be able to teach classes involving polarizing topics. 47 percent supported such teaching. The difference is inside the survey’s +/- 4 percent margin of sampling error, but nonetheless indicates a divided public.
  • 83 percent polled said that students should be able to conduct peaceful protests at an event to object to a controversial speaker on campus, with the same percentage saying that students should not be able to disrupt and block the speech.
  • When asked to indicate which from a list of goals should be a “major purpose” of colleges and universities in the United States, 82 percent said “to teach students specific skills and knowledge that they can use in the workplace”; 78 percent said “to advance knowledge and innovative ideas”; 76 percent said “to teach students to be critical thinkers,” and 62 percent said a major purpose is “to support the free exchange and debate of different ideas and values.”

The AP’s own coverage of the poll emphasized what may be the least surprising  finding. In the AP’s words: “Americans view college campuses as far friendlier to liberals than to conservatives when it comes to free speech, with adults across the political spectrum seeing less tolerance for those on the right.” To be clear, that’s a finding of perception of bias, not a finding of actual bias.

Here are the survey findings in detail:

“People view a great deal of inequity when it comes to who is able to speak freely on university campuses,” said Jennifer Benz, deputy director of the AP-NORC Center. “For example, nearly half the public thinks white people have a lot of latitude to speak their minds freely on campus, but just 3 in 10 believe Hispanic or Asian people are able to do the same,” in a University of Chicago press release about the survey.

While 62 percent of survey participants indicated they had “some college” education or more, the survey did not ask how recently or extensively participants had themselves directly experienced the free-speech climate at colleges and universities in the United States

The survey positions Americans – a vast majority of whom neither work on nor attend school on college campuses – as having meaningful insight into the relative free-speech rights of liberal, conservative, black, Hispanic, Asian, gay and lesbian, transgender and straight people on a 5-point scale. The biggest surprise about these results is the tiny number of “don’t know” responses to these questions, considering the relatively small number of Americans currently experiencing expression on Americas campuses to a degree that they are able to form a reasonably accurate assessment.

This is one in a series of occasional articles by the Free Speech Center assessing public opinion surveys on First Amendment rights. Understanding public perception of the First Amendment is critical to preserving and protecting the five freedoms that it encompasses. Surveys and polling play a particularly valuable role for those who strive to build public understanding of the First Amendment. 

Ken Paulson, J.D., is the director of the Free Speech Center at Middle Tennessee State University and a professor teaching courses on freedom of expression. Jason Reineke, Ph. D., is an associate professor in the School of Journalism and Strategic Media at MTSU. He teaches classes in freedom of expression, media law, and social-science research methods and theory. He was previously the associate director of the MTSU Poll. 

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