Survey suggests college students think some speech might warrant violent reactions – even the death penalty

A vintage classroom with wooden desks and a teacher's desk, blackboards covering the wall filled with chalk writing highlighting free speech violations, and a Canadian flag in the corner.

A disturbing new survey released late last month, conducted by McLaughlin & Associates for the William F. Buckley, Jr. Program at Yale, found that college students were surprisingly willing to say that violence might be an appropriate reaction to “hateful” views. Worse, responses to one of the questions suggest that they are surprisingly understanding–and maybe even supportive–of cultures that are willing to kill people for sufficiently offensive speech.

Let’s take a look at the exact questions and results:

Q24. Do you agree or disagree with the following statement: “If someone is using hate speech or making racially charged comments, physical violence can be justified to prevent this person from espousing their hateful views.”

AGREE Overall: 41.3%

  • Strongly agree: 16.7%
  • Somewhat agree: 24.6%

DISAGREE overall: 49.0%

  • Somewhat disagree: 23.0%
  • Strongly disagree: 26.0%


Faculty and students on college campuses are constantly facing threats to their free speech through the application of unconstitutional speech codes, HR and disciplinary hearings intended to punish those who speak out, and DEI-type requirements that demand that they toe a certain political line or face punishment, non-rehiring, lack of raises, et cetera. A large portion of our clients here at Allen Harris are precisely such people.

Often, schools even try to justify censoring and punishing these speakers by saying that what they deem to be “hate speech” or “racially charged” speech might cause others to commit violent acts on campus.

This survey suggests that they might even be right, if more than 40% of students think physical violence can be justified to shut down whatever it is they define as “hate speech.”

But here’s the thing: it’s the school’s job to make sure this doesn’t happen. When the authorities allow violence or threats of violence from an audience to justify silencing or punishing a speaker, that’s called the “heckler’s veto.” At public institutions, where the First Amendment applies, this is unlawful, and those silenced can sue to prevent it from happening (or happening again). Most private colleges (though not high schools) also promise in their policies to protect free speech, and may be subject to litigation as well if they don’t do so.

Q25. Do you agree or disagree with the following statement:

“Violence in response to offensive speech is not a new phenomenon. In some cultures, some types of offensive speech even merit the death penalty. Some speech can be so offensive in certain cases that it merits such harsh punishment.”

AGREE overall: 47.8%

  • Strongly 19.7%
  • Somewhat 28.1%

DISAGREE overall: 37.7%

  • Somewhat 22.6%
  • Strongly 15.1%

UNSURE: 14.5%

It’s hard to know what to make of this question and the response to it. One (fairly justifiable) interpretation would be to say “we’re doomed!” given that nearly 50% of college students signaled agreement with the idea that the death penalty might be merited by “some types of offensive speech.” While disturbing in the extreme to see this in today’s America, it’s worth remembering that this sentiment is more the rule than the exception, historically speaking. It’s challenging to live in a diverse democratic republic where your neighbors, or fellow students and faculty members, might have wildly different ideas on how to live. There is a reason that people like Socrates and Savonarola were put to death for charges amounting to blasphemy–the old-fashioned term for speech deemed so offensive to society’s religion or values that it justifies violent retribution. Indeed, 40% of countries still have blasphemy laws today (though most, but not all, don’t often mete out the death penalty). But if America gives up on this classically liberal conception of free speech, where the government must respect and defend a citizen’s right to speak without fear of violence, we won’t like the results. Frederick Douglass’ Plea for Free Speech in Boston, made after the Boston authorities allowed a mob to break up an abolitionist event in 1860, is an eloquent explanation of the problems with such a system.

However, given how the question was phrased, there’s a good chance that some of the student respondents thought that they were answering a factual question rather than an opinion question. It’s not entirely clear whether the question is asking whether students themselves think that some offensive speech might “merit[] such harsh punishment” or whether they think that some cultures think this (the latter of which is true, assuming you can generalize to the opinion of “some cultures”). It’s also possible that students were reluctant to criticize other cultures and their values, even if they run wildly counter to our own.

This confusion might explain why a higher percentage of students seem to indicate that the death penalty might be merited for some speech (48%) than believe that physical violence might be justified to prevent “hate speech.” In future or follow-up surveys, it would be wise for this question to be better phrased.

The whole survey is interesting, if not that encouraging–but there is at least one bright spot. When asked if “incoming students and current college students need to be better educated on the value of free speech and the diversity of opinion on campuses,” more than 80% of students said they agreed. In our experience, this is highly true and long overdue at most schools. Unless and until this happens and starts to make a difference, though, there will still be plenty of students and faculty members who need a lawyer to defend their rights. If that’s you, don’t hesitate to contact Allen Harris—vindicating those rights is what we do.