Are college students really a bunch of budding fascists?

Published 9:09 pm Sunday, April 22, 2018

As Newnan, Georgia, braced for a Nazi Party rally, there was word that “Antifa Valdosta” would seek to disrupt the protests. Would the group be made up of college students? And how do today’s college students feel about speakers, disruption, and political violence anyway? There’s a new poll, but can the data be trusted?

Higher education was shaken by a poll by UCLA Professor John Villasenor, showed that less than half of all college students believe that the First Amendment protects hate speech. A majority say they prefer a campus environment where they are shielded from offensive views.

Most jarring was the response to this question: “A student group opposed to the speaker uses violence to prevent the speaker from speaking. Do you agree or disagree that the student group’s actions are acceptable?” Nearly one in five of the respondents said that they agree that violence would be acceptable. Slightly more than half believed it was acceptable to shout loud enough at an event so that the audience cannot hear the speaker.

Moreover, Villasenor simply assumes college faculty would hold similar views hostile to the First Amendment, and supportive of shouting and violence. “I expect that if college faculty and administrators were asked the questions in this survey, the results would, at least in broad terms, be similar to the student results presented above.” Yet this is merely assumed, and never tested.

Such a survey by the professor was posted on the Brookings Institute and was widely covered in the press, mentioned in Forbes, the Chicago Tribune, as well as Newsweek, National Review and the Washington Post.

But there are serious flaws with the survey, as evidence shows. First of all, the survey, which implies it is a representative sample, really isn’t.  Instead of gathering a representative sample of college students, the polls conducted was an opt-in survey conducted online by respondents who simply claimed they were college students.  There’s no evidence to say that they were. Moreover, posting a “margin of error” makes it imply that it really was an actual representative survey.  

As a result, the former president of the American Association of Public Polling labeled the survey “junk science,” according to a 2018 article in Salon. A 2012 publication by Langer Research Associates reveal how opt-in online panel polls have been discredited for being notoriously unreliable.

In an interview with the publication Inside Higher Education, Villasenor, a professor of electrical engineering, public policy and management, “acknowledged that the survey was opt-in and that there could be no assurance that the sample was representative.”  

Lost in coverage of the Villasenor poll flaws is that results from the Gallup Poll published by the Knight Foundation reveal that while 78 percent of college students want no free speech restrictions, some of the remainder want a campus prohibiting some speech and viewpoints biased against some groups. Those views are relatively similar for Democrat, Republican and independent students.

Such numbers are supported by the Pew Research Center, which contends that only 22 percent of college students prefer any restrictions on speech, even as 40 percent of all Millennials want such limits on offensive viewpoints. Given that a number of Millennials don’t go to college, it’s easy to see why pundits make the mistake of equating young people with collegians. 

Since college students prefer a more open environment than those of their age who don’t go to college, clearly colleges are doing something positive to promote tolerance of views on campus.

From my last column about Nazis, I was only using commentator Ben Shapiro as an example of a provocateur, who invites controversy and possibly attacks.  I just wanted to clarify that.