From Suffrage to Suppression: Women Now Lead in Anti-Speech Sentiment

Keli Carender

Two recent polls, one that sampled college students and another that sampled Americans in general, highlight a disturbing trend among women’s views on free speech rights.

While there are many women who support robust free speech rights, and many well-known women who have made their career working as advocates and activists for free speech, as a group women are increasingly hostile to freedom of speech.

Just this week, Gallup and the Knight Foundation released their newest poll of college students’ attitudes toward free speech, and college women did not answer well on questions of protecting free speech. When asked how important it is to protect citizens’ rights to free speech, a very slim majority of women (51%) responded that it was “extremely important” compared to 62% of men.

One of the questions that received a lot of attention asked students which was more important to a democracy, protecting citizens’ free speech rights or promoting a diverse and inclusive society. This question wrongly implies that the two concepts are mutually exclusive. David French at National Review writes,

At first, I objected to the question. We are not “forced to choose” between inclusivity and free speech. But on reflection, I realized the question’s worth. That’s exactly how free-speech debates are framed on campus. Advocates of free speech are often cast as enemies of diversity and opponents of inclusion. Students are told time and again that if they value historically marginalized communities, then they should endeavor to protect them from problematic or offensive speech.

Yet that line of thinking posits a false conflict. No one is more empowered by free speech than the historically marginalized and dispossessed. Writing in 1860, Frederick Douglass rightly declared free speech to be the “great moral renovator of society and government.” He argued that “slavery cannot tolerate free speech” and that “five years of its exercise would banish the auction block and break every chain in the South.”

Also at National Review, Kyle Smith writes,

The question on everyone’s mind was: How can it be that “free speech” and “inclusion” are opposites? The whole point of the First Amendment, in its clauses on both religion and expression, is to protect the right to think and express unpopular, minority, even radical views. Yet the question in the survey was cleverly phrased: It unveiled the troubling truth that like so many other euphemisms, inclusion has come to signify its opposite. The important student constituency of the Democratic party simply revealed what is true of the Left overall: When they say “inclusion,” they’re talking about “exclusion.”

The idea that diversity and inclusion are in conflict with free speech is a false binary that anti-free speech advocates have invented and propagated in an effort to gain political power. After all, if you can not only shut your opponents up, but also get them to do it voluntarily, then winning becomes a lot easier.

French is right about the value of the question, as it may give free speech advocates an opening through which to reach indoctrinated students. As proponents of free speech understand, a country will not have diversity or inclusion if its citizens are not able to exercise their right to free speech. Figuring out how to impart this lesson to young Americans could be the key to saving free speech.

So how did college women answer this malformed question? 64% of the women polled picked diversity and inclusion as most important, while 35% chose protecting free speech. The college men answered it in reverse with 61% choosing to protect free speech and 39% prioritizing diversity and inclusion.

A quick Google search will pull up hundreds of articles positing that American women do not have the same free speech rights as men, and theorizing that men only support free speech rights because it gives them an unfair advantage. But as French points out, marginalized groups are the groups most empowered by free speech. And what proponents of restrictions on speech don’t seem to understand is that any restrictions they place on the speech they don’t like today can (and probably will, if history is any indication) be turned around and used against them tomorrow.

Other disturbing responses from women include the 71% who believe that “hate speech” should not be protected by the First Amendment, even though hate speech is subjective and no one can agree on what constitutes hate speech. 56% of college men believe the First Amendment does not cover so-called hate speech; a full 15 points lower than the women.

33% of women said it was important for colleges to create a positive environment by prohibiting speech that is offensive or biased against certain groups vs. 23% of men who said the same. 34% of women said colleges should be able to restrict political speech, as opposed to 24% of men. 95% of women support “safe spaces” (men, 77%), 90% of women support free speech zones (men, 75%), and 58% of the women support speech codes (men, 37%). 74% of women think social media platforms should be responsible for limiting hate speech on their platforms vs. 61% of men.

A note here about the men: the men do not shine in these responses either. However, the fact that women consistently answered in a more anti-speech manner on just about every question is something that free speech advocates need to recognize and investigate.

Unfortunately, a hostility to free speech isn’t confined to the college-aged generation; women of all ages hold these views, according to a Cato Institute/YouGov poll conducted in 2017.

For nearly all free speech advocates, the goal is not to be cruel. One problem that arises  is when there are genuine and legitimate differences in opinion – as there have been since the dawn of humanity – and rather than air those differences via civil debate, one side is shouted down or de-platformed or harassed and threatened into silence. The other main problem is that an increasing quantity and quality of speech is being condemned as “hateful” or “offensive.” If everything is eventually deemed to be hate speech, then no one will be able to say anything, ever.

It is a well-known axiom on the free speech side of the aisle that the solution to bad speech is more speech. This means that citizens ought to thoughtfully engage with the opposition, and defeat the ideas they find offensive with rational arguments and persuasion. Everyone gets their say, and those with the better arguments and evidence will likely win the day.

The question remains – why are women so ready to throw away free speech rights? It’s ironic to think about the history of free speech as it relates directly to women through women’s suffrage. That women demanded the right to vote was extremely offensive to many people, including many American men and other women. It is likely that opponents of women’s suffrage would have categorized pro-suffrage speech as “hate speech” if they had had the phrase at the time. Do women today really want to be the leaders in a movement to stifle free speech? It is imperative that free-speech supporters engage and persuade all those who back prohibitions on speech, while also figuring out how to specifically reach the women who seem so keen on rolling back the hard-won rights that belong to us all.

Image Credit: Public Domain

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