Younger Americans, it seems, are more comfortable with placing restrictions on offensive speech than their older counterparts. Results from a global survey conducted by Pew Research in 2015 shows that 40 percent of millennials (those born between 1981 and 2000) in the United States felt that the “government should be able to prevent people publicly making statements that are offensive to minority groups.”
This is in sharp contrast to older generations of Americans. Generation X (born 1965 to 1980) and baby boomers (born 1946 to 1964) were closely aligned on the issue: only 27 and 24 percent of respondents, respectively, agreed that the government should limit offensive speech. The most striking differences were between the oldest and youngest groups. Of the so-called mature silents (born 1927 to 1945), only 12 percent agreed with limiting speech.
The American Civil Liberties Union, a group known for their steadfast defense of marginalized and underrepresented groups and individuals, has, in fact, vigorously defended the free-speech rights of bigots, racists, and other hate groups. As the organization explains on their website, “Restricting the speech of one group or individual jeopardizes everyone’s rights because the same laws or regulations used to silence bigots can be used to silence you. Conversely, laws that defend free speech for bigots can be used to defend the rights of civil rights workers, anti-war protesters, lesbian and gay activists and others fighting for justice.”
What might account for the wide generational gap? Some have pointed to an unlikely source: academia. The ACLU has identified this issue as a growing concern on college campuses, where “speech codes” seek to silence offensive speech. At government-funded colleges and universities, this practice violates the First Amendment and amounts to government censorship, the organization argues.
While 40 percent of the millennial respondents felt limited speech was okay, a majority of Americans (a median of 72 percent) still didn’t approve of government limiting of free speech, offensive or not. And Americans remain far more aligned on free speech principals than other western cultures; a full 49 percent of six EU nations surveyed by Pew Research approve of government restrictions on speech.