New Polling Suggests the Kids Are Not Alright on Free Speech

David Inserra

In early November, Nate Silver published his analysis of the 2024 College Free Speech polling done by the College Pulse and the Foundation for Individual Rights and Expression (FIRE) earlier this year. And boy is his analysis sobering. 

Students in the past led the charge for free expression, championing disfavored perspectives. Today a majority of students would reject speakers with disfavored views on some of the biggest issues in our society.

In the poll, only 29 percent of students said a speaker who viewed transgender people as having a mental disorder or who viewed “Black Lives Matter” as a hate group should be allowed to speak. Only 43 percent said an advocate for the abolition of abortion should be allowed on campus. 

On the other hand, 65 percent of students would allow a speaker calling for the abolition of the Second Amendment so guns can be confiscated; 57 percent would allow a speaker who argued that religious liberty is used as an excuse to discriminate against gays and lesbians; and 72 percent would allow speakers with the view that structural racism maintains inequality by protecting White privilege.

Such disparate views toward speech were largely driven by a divide between students on the left—who were permissive of progressive speakers but hostile to conservative speakers—and conservative students—who were fairly consistent in their support for speakers regardless of political viewpoint. 

controversial speaker

But this polling contains other worrisome findings that transcend the viewpoints of speakers, such as that only 37 percent of students think it is never acceptable to shout down a speaker; only 55% think it is never acceptable to block other students from attending a speech; and 27% of students believe that violence can rarely, sometimes, or always be an acceptable answer to stop a campus speech. 

As Silver rightly notes, there is also plenty of blame to go around with both conservatives and progressives also calling for restrictions on certain types of speech or certain types of speakers

The threat to a culture of free expression is rising. While some may write off this threat as a passing fad that doesn’t threaten American First Amendment liberties, it is only a matter of time before a culture of silence and cancellation work their way into our laws and jurisprudence. As George Orwell wrote, “The point is that the relative freedom which we enjoy depends on public opinion. The law is no protection. Governments make laws, but whether they are carried out, and how the police behave, depends on the general temper in the country. If large numbers of people are interested in freedom of speech, there will be freedom of speech, even if the law forbids it; if public opinion is sluggish, inconvenient minorities will be persecuted, even if laws exist to protect them.”


FIRE’s polling highlights the ongoing challenge to a culture of free expression in the US as well as concerns about cancel culture. These issues are discussed further in FIRE President Greg Lukianoff’s recently coauthored new book The Canceling of the American Mind: Cancel Culture Undermines Trust and Threatens Us All―But There Is a Solution (Cato will host a book discussion Dec 6, 2024) on how cancel culture is a symptom of a larger problem— Americans are using cheap yet powerful tactics to de‐​platform those they disagree with rather than engage in difficult conversations. Thankfully, the Canceling book provides ideas for how we can restore a culture of free expression on college campuses and beyond through better citizenship

FIRE’s polling and Nate Silver’s analysis are cause for concern. Support for expression is fading, even among those who have historically needed and utilized free expression the most. As Americans debate a variety of contentious issues, cancellation and censorship must be resisted. As Canceling makes clear, we must build a culture of free expression if we are to continue to enjoy the many benefits of free expression.

Is Freedom of Expression Dangerous? No, Study Finds More Expression Helps Us Handle Conflict

David Inserra

Free speech scholars and advocates have written about the general decline in freedom of expression that has occurred over the past two decades. Despite great technological advances that make communicating immensely easier—social media, encrypted communications, and ubiquitous computers and cell phones—many governmental policies and public opinion around the world have soured on the importance of expression.

In this recession of free speech, the Future of Free Speech project, a collaborative venture between the Justitia think tank and Vanderbilt University, has released a report that examines the importance of free speech as a “safety valve” to prevent social conflict. Among the issues studied in the report is the common belief today that “extreme” or disfavored speech around contentious topics can lead to violence and social conflict. This belief can even be seen in the glib slogans “silence is violence” or “words are violence.”

By ascribing actual violence to mere differences of opinion, this view argues that allowing such expression will lead to more violence. In other words, free speech can normalize and spread beliefs that will produce more violence. It can allow more dissension within a society that ultimately erupts into violent conflict.

But the Future of Free Speech report, by executive director Jacob Mchangama and Christian Bjørnskov challenges that narrative. Rather than producing more violence, greater expression—not merely defined as First Amendment or other legal protections, but also the ability to safely and freely express oneself in practice—is often correlated with less societal conflict and violence.

Speech can function as a safety valve that allows individuals to express frustrations and vent their anger without resorting to violence. Speech allows policymakers to understand the views of their constituents in order to legislate effectively. For instance, it allows civil society to form and address the sources of social conflict, as seen in the struggle for civil rights in the 1950s and 1960s, where civil society helped guide peaceful protests and expression to overcome the evils of segregation and Jim Crow.

Censorship, on the other hand, can even create more conflicts as it limits legitimate avenues for discussion, according to the report. The study finds that speech “restrictions will lead to more conflict, a consequence that to some extent may be driven by government misuse of restrictions. Such problems are more often than not ignored by the legal and political literature on the topic.”

In other words, government abuse of its censorial powers increases the frustration of those who are silenced and potentially leads some to turn to conflict and violence.

The Future of Free Speech report discovered that among democracies and multiparty autocracies with relatively strong protections for citizens’ rights, freedom of expression is strongly and significantly associated with less social conflict. Simply, in democratic and relatively less authoritarian states, greater freedom of expression means less social conflict and more restrictions on expression may result in more conflict.

However, researchers also found that “it appears that increasing the freedom of expression is associated with more conflict in single‐​party regimes.” This is possibly due to autocratic governments channeling expression against already socially disfavored groups that are unprotected or even targeted as enemies of the state. Additionally, the brutal repression and lack of expression in communist states may result in very little outward conflict, but such repression also crushes human flourishing.

Indeed, the safety valve justification is not the only reason to treasure freedom of expression. Other reasons include:

  • self‐​governance and government accountability;
  • individual liberty and fulfillment;
  • the search for truth and knowledge in the marketplace of ideas;
  • understanding what others believe;
  • promoting tolerance;
  • and that censorship may be ineffective or even backfire.

The next time you hear an expert or policymaker say we need to restrict speech to reduce conflict and violence, know that this is not a tradeoff we need to make.

In light of the horrendous acts of terrorism against Israel and the ongoing conflict in Gaza, many critics are saying we need to limit speech and silence others in the name of safety and to stop alleged misinformation. Citing the conflict, the EU is for the first time invoking—and already abusing—the Digital Services Act to cow social media companies into removing protected speech.

Yes, we should stop activity that is violent or directly incites people to imminent violence. But undesirable opinions are not violence. Words are not violence, and we can have safety and liberty so long as we reject the idea that free expression is dangerous.

Meta Set Up Its Own Oversight Board. Three Years Later, How Effective Has It Been?

David Inserra

Large portions of the EU’s sweeping “Digital Services Act” (DSA) went into force at the end of August. In addition to several controversial provisions for freedom of expression, the DSA requires member states to establish dispute resolution tribunals that will adjudicate social media content moderation decisions. Of course, having member states establish these tribunals makes it likely that they will reflect the interests of EU governments.

This is in contrast to Meta’s attempt at content moderation oversight by its Oversight Board, which is private and mostly independent.

In 2020, Meta established an independent organization known as the Oversight Board to “help Facebook answer some of the most difficult questions around freedom of expression online: what to take down, what to leave up, and why.” The Oversight Board has the power to review and even overrule content‐​moderation decisions made by Meta, as well as issue non‐​binding recommendations on Meta’s policies.

The Board is comprised of 22 members from around the world, including a former prime minister, human rights leaders, journalists, judges, and think tank experts, including Cato’s First Amendment scholar John Samples. To date, the Board has decided fifty‐​two cases looking at specific content and three broader policy advisory opinions. For full disclosure, I recently worked on Meta’s content policy teams and directly supported Meta’s efforts on the Oversight Board.

But unlike the Oversight Board, which is a private and mostly independent body established by Meta, the new DSA dispute tribunals are required by EU law. This means they are more likely to be influenced or connected to government.

As a result, these tribunals will likely be yet another way in which the EU will attempt to dictate content policy decisions to social media companies. These decisions will vary from tribunal to tribunal and certainly differ from social media companies’ current policies, not to mention the laws or speech protections of countries outside the EU.

Furthermore, this approach has the EU member states dictate the way content moderation appeals and disputes must be handled rather than allowing different platforms to develop their own solutions. For example, Reddit and Wikipedia both have processes that handle content moderation disputes differently than Meta or its Oversight Board. As social media companies continue to change and innovate, this requirement may also inhibit the growth of new solutions.

With an increasing amount of content policy jurisprudence built around the EU, these regulations will inevitably impact the broader content policies governing users in the US and beyond. As my colleague Jennifer Huddleston recently wrote, what happens in Brussels doesn’t stay in Brussels, and so the growth of EU content moderation schemes under the DSA can affect Americans and what some have termed “a free speech recession.”

While the DSA model raises concerns for freedom of expression, even the underlying Oversight Board model is not fully understood yet. Critically, how well has the Oversight Board completed its stated purpose of “protect[ing] free expression by making principled, independent decisions about important pieces of content and by issuing policy advisory opinions on Meta’s content policies?”

Answering this question will require a more comprehensive analysis of the Oversight Board’s processes, cases, rationales, decisions, and overall impacts on freedom of expression online. Some of the major elements of the Oversight Board worth exploring, both on its own merits as well as how the model might work more generally, include:

  • Processes and organization: How is the Board organized and operated? What is its decision‐​making process? What does it see as its mission and values?
  • Cases, priorities, and rulings: What cases has the Board taken (and not taken)? What is it prioritizing? What themes or precedents is the Board establishing in its decisions?
  • Scalability and impact on content moderation: How broadly or narrowly has Meta’s content moderation been changed or affirmed because of Board decisions? What content policy changes have been made because of the Board’s rulings?
  • Impact on expression: Has the Board supported greater expression or more restrictions of speech online?

The promise of the Oversight Board is certainly greater for freedom of expression than EU regulations and tribunals that are likely to push government views and limit future innovations in content moderation, but more research is required to determine just how impactful the Board has been.