recent changes in tolerance for controversial speakers

In July 2020, I wrote a post showing that the proportions of Americans who thought that several types of controversial speakers should be allowed to talk in their own communities generally increased between the 1970s and 2010s. The categories of speakers mentioned in the General Social Survey have been gay people, opponents of “churches and religion,”* communists, advocates of military dictatorship, racists, and Muslim clergy “preaching hatred of the United States.”

I have now looked at the GSS data from 2021 and 2022. Here are the updated trends:

I still perceive a general upward trend from the 1970s until 2018. The exception is that tolerance for racist speakers did not rise--nor did it fall--during that period. Since 2020, levels of tolerance for both racist and militarist speakers have declined very noticeably.

Interpreting such attitudes is complicated because a person can express tolerance for a given kind of speech for at least two reasons. One might be a civil libertarian, believing that bad speech should be allowed and countered with more speech. Or one might not see the speech in question as bad in the first place. The graph shows that tolerance for racist speech did not rise while other forms of tolerance increased. I am pretty confident that the population was generally turning more civil libertarian, yet also more opposed to racism, partly because Americans were becoming more demographically diverse.

The recent dropoff in tolerance for racist speakers is driven entirely by people who place themselves on the left side of a liberal-to-conservative spectrum. I presume it is a result of the antiracist movements of recent years.

The modest decline in tolerance for anti-religious speakers seems to be driven by a five-point drop on the political right.

The decline in tolerance for proponents of military dictatorship has been similar on the left and right. I presume this is a critical response to Jan. 6, and I'm glad it has been bipartisan.

For what it's worth, I am consistently opposed to governmental censorship of political speech. I think that some other organizations may choose which speech to favor or exclude, but they should generally be reluctant to use bans or retroactive penalties for speech. I don't think it's obvious whether racists or proponents of dictatorship should be "allowed" in one's community. The First Amendment prevents legal sanctions to their speech. But if the question is whether they should be given prominent invitations to speak, then I am skeptical.

*For no good reason, I omitted attitudes toward anti-religious speakers in my 2020 post. See also: there has been no decrease in toleration of differences; a civic approach to free speech; what sustains free speech?

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About Peter

Associate Dean for Research and the Lincoln Filene Professor of Citizenship and Public Affairs at Tufts University's Tisch College of Civic Life. Concerned about civic education, civic engagement, and democratic reform in the United States and elsewhere.