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POLL: Americans oppose campus protesters defacing property, occupying buildings

Black and white image of a protest on a college campus with blue, yellow, and red stacked bar graphs in the background
  • The new ֭/NORC poll finds Americans strongly disagree with some of the forms of protest on display on college campuses this spring.
  • Nearly three-fourths of Americans (72%) believe that students who participated in encampments should be punished, but disagree on the severity of punishment.
  • The poll also found that less than a third of Americans express high levels of confidence in colleges and universities.

PHILADELPHIA, June 20, 2024 — A new poll finds that Americans disapprove of some of the methods employed by the recent pro-Palestinian campus protesters, with large majorities saying they oppose vandalism, oppose building occupations, and support punishing students who participated in encampments.

As part of an AmeriSpeak panel conducted by NORC at the University of Chicago, the FIREasked Americans in May about their feelings on the series of high-profile protests on college campuses that made headlines across the country.

A majority of Americans said that defacing school property (80%), burning an American flag (68%), or occupying buildings (52%) are “never” an acceptable form of protest, and a plurality said the same of establishing encampments (43%). With the exception of flag burning — which is controversial but protected speech— the most disfavored forms of protest are all unprotected by the First Amendment.

By contrast, the majority of Americans said it is “always” acceptable to create a petition (58%) or hold a sign (55%) as a form of protest, and a plurality say the same of marching for long distances (45%). Less than 10% of Americans said any of those activities are “never” an acceptable form of protest.

Graph showing how acceptable Americans think it is to engage in certain forms of protest on college campuses

“It’s no shocker that Americans tend to disapprove of illegal and illiberal conduct by student protesters,” said FIREChief Research Advisor Sean Stevens. “But it’s alarming that a third of Americans say constitutionally protected and non-threatening activities like sign-holding or petitions are only ‘sometimes’ or ‘rarely’ acceptable. Nonviolent protest should always be acceptable on college campuses.” 

Nearly three-fourths of Americans (72%) believe that campus protesters who participated in encampments should be punished, but only 18% believe they should receive the harshest penalty of expulsion. Other responses ran the gamut from suspension (13%), to probation (16%), to written reprimand (12%), to community service (13%). Only 23% believe the students should receive no punishment at all.

Pie chart showing what consequences Americans believe students should face for participating in campus encampments

“Public colleges and universities can usually ban encampments without violating the First Amendment, so long as the ban serves a reasonable purpose, enforcement is consistent and viewpoint-neutral, and students maintain other avenues for expressing themselves,” said FIREDirector of Campus Rights Advocacy Lindsie Rank. “Universities can’t disproportionately punish students just because administrators don’t agree with the viewpoint being expressed at the encampment.”

Almost two-thirds of Americans (63%) said that the campus protests had no impact at all on their level of sympathy for Palestinians in Gaza, and respondents were as likely to say that the campus protests made them sympathize less with the Palestinians (17%) as they were to say they made them sympathize more (16%).

Pie chart showing what impact if any the college protests had on respondents sympathy with Gaza

FIRE’s poll also shows that American confidence in colleges and universities continues to slip. Only 28% of respondents said that they have either a “great deal” or “quite a lot” of confidence in U.S. colleges and universities. By comparison, 36% of Americans told Gallup in  that they have a “great deal” or “quite a lot” of confidence in higher education in the U.S.

Colleges received middling grades in particular on the issue of protecting speech. Almost half of Americans (47%) say that it is “not at all” or “not very” clear that college administrators protect free speech on their campus. Roughly two-in-five Americans (42%) said that it is “not at all”or “not very” likely that a school administration would defend a speaker's right to express their views during a controversy on campus.

The ֭/NORC survey was conducted May 17-19, 2024, using NORC’s AmeriSpeak® probability-based panel, and sampled 1,309 Americans. The overall margin of error for the survey is +/- 4%.


The FIRE(֭) is a nonpartisan, nonprofit organization dedicated to defending and sustaining the individual rights of all Americans to free speech and free thought — the most essential qualities of liberty. FIREeducates Americans about the importance of these inalienable rights, promotes a culture of respect for these rights, and provides the means to preserve them.

NORC at the University of Chicago conducts research and analysis that decision-makers trust. As a nonpartisan research organization and a pioneer in measuring and understanding the world, NORC has studied almost every aspect of the human experience and every major news event for more than eight decades. Today, NORC partners with government, corporate, and nonprofit clients around the world to provide the objectivity and expertise necessary to inform the critical decisions facing society. 

CONTACT:

Alex Griswold, Communications Campaign Manager, ֭: 215-717-3473; media@thefire.org

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