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New FIREpoll shows partisanship drives perception of campus encampment protests

Black and white image of a protest on a college campus with colored pie graph in the foreground

How do Americans feel about the months of campus protests responding to the Israel-Hamas war? 

According to a new poll, the answer — like so many things this election year — comes down to politics. 

new nationally representative survey of 1,309 Americans by the FIREand NORC at the University of Chicago reveals that a majority of Americans believe that college students should never occupy buildings or deface school property during a campus protest. 

Most Americans also: 

  • Believe colleges should impose some sort of punishment on students participating in campus encampments.
  • Report that the encampment protests have not impacted their level of sympathy for the Palestinians in Gaza. 

However, among those who did report a change in sympathy for the Palestinians in response to the encampment protests, responses were split fairly evenly between increased sympathy and decreased sympathy.

A majority of Americans support peaceful protest on campus

Americans don’t oppose all forms of campus protest. Most believe it is acceptable for college students to engage in peaceful forms of protest, for example. 

About 85% of Americans said it is “always” or “sometimes” acceptable for college students to protest on campus by holding a sign or creating a petition. About three quarters of Americans say this about marching for long distances. 

A third of Americans said that it is “always” or “sometimes” acceptable for college students to establish encampments as part of a campus protest. Predictably, American views on encampments differ along partisan lines. Among moderate, somewhat liberal, or very liberal Ameircans, a majority said that encampments are at least “rarely” acceptable during a campus protest. 

Unsurprisingly, there are clear partisan differences between Americans on how colleges should respond to college students who participate in encampment protests. 

On the other hand, a little more than half of Americans who described themselves as somewhat conservative said that encampments are “never” acceptable under the same circumstances, and roughly 8 in 10 “very” conservative Americans said the same.

Chart showing what forms of protest Americans find acceptable

When it comes to college students occupying buildings or defacing school property during a campus protest — both of which are forms of protest not protected by the First Amendment — a majority of Americans said that these behaviors are “never” acceptable. A majority of Americans also said that it is “never” acceptable to burn an American flag during a campus protest, even though flag burning is a protected form of expression.

All of these sentiments are more pronounced among conservative and moderate Americans than they are among liberals. A clear majority of conservative Americans say that it is “never” acceptable for college students to occupy a building, burn an American flag, or deface school property during a campus protest. Moderate Americans report similar, albeit weaker, attitudes. In contrast, a majority of liberal Americans say that it is at least “rarely” acceptable for college students to occupy buildings or burn an American flag during a campus protest. 

Americans think colleges should discipline encampment protesters

When protesters do set up encampments, respondents overwhelmingly said students should face consequences. 

Three-quarters of Americans said that colleges should impose some sort of punishment on students participating in encampments on campus. However, even Americans who agree that students should face punishment are divided on what the nature of that punishment should be: 

  • 18% of Americans said that colleges should expel students for participating in the encampment protests.
  • 13% said that colleges should suspend students for participating in encampment protests
  • 16% said that colleges should place those students on probation. 
  • 13% said that colleges should require those students to participate in community service
  • 12% said that colleges should reprimand students in writing. 

Only 23% of Americans said that students participating in the encampment protests should not be disciplined at all.

Bar graph showing what Americans think the punishment should be for certain kinds of protest

Unsurprisingly, there are clear partisan differences between Americans on how colleges should respond to college students who participate in encampment protests. 

For instance, just over half of “very” liberal Americans and roughly a third of “somewhat” liberal Americans said that these students should not be disciplined at all. 

In contrast, a notable portion of “very” (44%) and “somewhat” (34%) conservative Americans said that colleges should expel these students. 

Encampment protests and confidence in higher education

Last week, FIRE noted that this poll also found that Americans’ confidence in higher education has dropped over the past three months to a record low. 

Although we cannot conclusively demonstrate that the recent encampment protests contributed to this recent decline in confidence in higher education, it seems likely that they have. 

Moderate and conservative Americans each  about one-third of the adult population, and establishing encampments is not popular with these individuals. Thus, the very fact that encampments occurred on campuses across the country may have eroded moderate and conservative Americans’ confidence in higher education. Further, news coverage of the protests may have reinforced the existing belief, particularly among conservatives, that leftist indoctrination is occuring in academia.

Liberal Americans’ general support of the encampments, on the other hand, suggests that they would be more likely to react negatively to college and university administrators calling in the police to break down encampments on campus or disciplining students for participating in them.

In other words, college and university administrators face what looks like a no-win scenario. 

Red bar graph fall down following the arrow

Confidence in colleges and universities hits new lows, per FIREpolls

News

American confidence in higher education has plummeted over the past year, reaching record lows after months of campus protests.

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If administrators prevent students from constructing encampments or order existing encampments to be taken down, they will upset liberal Americans and a notable portion of their student body and faculty. This is also the likely outcome if administrators choose to discipline students who participate in encampments. However, if administrators allow students to establish or maintain an encampment, or fail to discipline those students who do, they risk alienating moderate and conservative Americans.

In many ways, college and university administrators brought this situation upon themselves. Many of them have not  content-neutral  during prior speech controversies. This helped create the impression among the general public that certain kinds of speech are favored on campus while other kinds are not welcome. 

It is time for colleges and universities to replace abstract platitudes about “supporting freedom of speech” with concrete actions that reflect real support for this value when controversy inevitably erupts.

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