". . . and having done all . . . stand firm." Eph. 6:13


Poll: 69% of Americans Believe Free Speech Is ‘Heading in the Wrong Direction’

March 1, 2024

Over the years, research centers have routinely polled American citizens on the topic of free speech. And with each passing year, the country seems more convinced that while freedom of speech is important, how one practices that right can be problematic.

For example, Foundation for Individual Rights and Expression (FIRE) and the Polarization Research Lab (PRL) at Dartmouth College recently released a poll that revealed 69% of the 1,000 Americans they surveyed believe free speech is “heading in the wrong direction.” However, it’s noteworthy that their concerns stem from the growing inability for people “to freely express their views.” And “alarmingly,” the researchers wrote, roughly one-third of the Americans polled believe the First Amendment “goes too far in the rights it guarantees.”

The poll experimented with a variety of controversial statements, asking respondents to choose which ones they found most offensive. Out of the most surprising results, 52% felt their community “should not allow a public speech that espouses the belief they selected as the most offensive.” Additionally, “A supermajority, 69%, said their local college should not allow a professor who espoused that belief to teach classes.”

Reason magazine summarized, “These results indicate that though the average American is concerned about protecting free speech rights, a significant portion of the population seem poised to welcome increasing censorship.”

FIRE Chief Research Advisor Sean Stevens said the “results were disappointing, but not exactly surprising.” He continued, “Here at FIRE, we’ve long observed that many people who say they’re concerned about free speech waver when it comes to beliefs they personally find offensive.” But Stevens, as well as Family Research Council’s Joseph Backholm, believe the best way to protect free speech is, in fact, to protect the right to be potentially offensive or controversial.

Backholm, who serves as a senior fellow for Biblical Worldview and Strategic Engagement at FRC, commented to The Washington Stand, “It isn’t just that the First Amendment also protects offensive speech, it primarily exists to protect offensive speech.” He explained that there’s “no need to recognize the right to say, ‘I like tacos,’ because” most people wouldn’t see a reason to silence that. The entire reason for the constitutional guarantee to the freedom of speech,” he added, “is because the Founders understood the government’s instinct to stop people from saying things the government disliked.”

Especially with the rise of cancel culture, Backholm emphasized, “A lot of people today believe there is a constitutional right not to be offended.” Additionally, they also often “believe the right not to be offended is of greater importance than the freedom of speech,” which he noted is commonly the reason why “pronoun laws and campus safe spaces” are created. “Yes, there are limits to free speech, but those limits are not triggered by the emotional stress associated with discovering there are people in the world who disagree with you,” he said.

As for the Americans in the poll who are more worried about offensive beliefs being freely expressed, Backholm said, “The problem with restricting ‘offensive’ speech is that different things are offensive to different people. The pro-life position is offensive to some while the pro-abortion position is offensive to others.” Ultimately, it begs the question: Should all conversations about the issue be banned? To which he answered, “Obviously not.”

Stevens emphasized the importance of teaching this generation about the value and meaning of the First Amendment. “These findings should be a wake-up call for the nation to recommit to a vibrant free speech culture before it’s too late.” Because, as Backholm concluded, “If we want to be free, and most of us do, we must accept the fact that being exposed to ideas and behaviors we dislike is the cost of being able to do and say things other people don’t like.”

Sarah Holliday is a reporter at The Washington Stand.