A Knight-Ipsos study from the Knight Free Expression Research Series
A Landmark Survey of Americans’ Views on Speech Rights
Free expression and the freedom of speech are cornerstones of American democracy. Yet the interpretation of the First Amendment continues to be a flashpoint in the 21st century as the nation debates how to apply these rights to our society.
For the 2021 “Free Expression in America Post-2020” report, Knight Foundation commissioned Ipsos to conduct a survey with a nationally representative sample of more than 4,000 American adults, including an additional sample of 1,000 undergraduate college students. The Knight Foundation-Ipsos study provides a comprehensive look at American attitudes toward freedom of speech in a post-2020 environment, building on Knight Foundation’s long-standing work studying free speech views among students since 2004.
The findings described in this report cover many but not all of the rich insights possible from this complex dataset. We invite the public and researchers to explore this publicly available resource in further detail. This study finds that all Americans hold to the ideal of free speech, but putting free expression into practice reveals significant differences in experiences and attitude. It examines how Americans view free expression issues, events and the application of our First Amendment rights in an increasingly digital, diverse1, and politically driven2 society.
- Americans of all walks of life appreciate freedom of speech and recognize its benefits to society and democracy. However, many Americans place equal or more importance on mitigating social challenges that can arise from free speech, like preventing misinformation or violence.
- While most Americans feel they enjoy First Amendment protections around their speech rights, some groups feel notably less secure. Black or African Americans, in particular, are much less likely to report that they feel protected by the First Amendment.
- Partisan affiliation drives wide-ranging views among Americans as to what constitutes a legitimate expression of First Amendment rights— particularly on topics that have been politicized, such as the 2020 racial injustice protests, the 2020 election, or the spread of misinformation about the election results. For nonpoliticized topics, like high school students making insulting comments about their school on social media, partisan differences disappear entirely.
- Experience with speech differs by race and politics. Black, Hispanic, and Asian Americans are more likely to report feeling uncomfortable or unsafe because of speech made by others. While few Americans overall have had their social media activity curtailed by the platforms, Republicans are more likely than Democrats and independents to say they have experienced this (however, this poll did not ask what specific types of posts or materials were curtailed). Views on how problematic speech should be addressed— particularly on social media—are likewise divided along political and racial lines.
- Most Americans say a variety of private and public institutions should prohibit racist speech but allow political views that are offensive. However, overall trust in these institutions is low.
A selection of key data points. Full findings are in the body of the report.
Experience with and attitudes toward speech vary widely among different groups in American society. The following is a brief summary of the major findings from several of those groups. Full data can be found in the main body of the report.
Democrats tend to see their political opponents (that is, conservatives) as having a slightly easier time than themselves in expressing their free speech rights. However, this masks a deeper divide among Democrats of different races and ethnicities. White Democrats are unique in seeing themselves as having a relatively easy time using their free speech rights, while Democrats of other racial and ethnic groups are less inclined to feel this way.
As a group, Democrats are more likely than Republicans or independents to report having felt either uncomfortable or unsafe because of comments other people have made about their identity or political beliefs. White Democrats are almost as likely as Black Americans to report feeling uncomfortable or unsafe because of others’ speech.
Democrats also hold strongly partisan views of what is (and is not) a legitimate exercise of free expression, being among the most likely to say that the 2020 racial injustice protests were legitimate and that spreading vaccine misinformation is illegitimate.
Republicans have distinctive views and experiences around free expression. On one hand, they are among the most permissive of speech when it is presented as an abstract concept. On the other hand, most Republicans do not believe kneeling during the national anthem is a legitimate form of free expression, and they are split on whether the racial injustice protests of 2020 were legitimate.
Republicans also have a unique understanding of free speech protections in America. While most Republicans say they personally feel protected
by the First Amendment, many also believe that other groups, such as Black, Hispanic, Asian or LGBTQ people, have an easier time using their free speech rights without consequence than whites, conservatives or people like them.
As noted in the Key Findings section, Republicans are slightly more likely than Democrats and independents to report that they have had social media posts flagged or removed by the platforms but are less likely to report feeling uncomfortable or unsafe as a result of others’ speech.
American independents are not the cohesive group on speech issues that they are sometimes thought of in popular imagination. When disaggregating opinions of independents, their views vary widely across a range of responses. For instance, on feeling protected by the First Amendment, independents as a whole look somewhat like Democrats, but digging deeper, white independents feel more protected—closer to white Republicans—while Black independents feel less well protected, more like Black Americans overall.
Likewise, white and minority independents have differing experiences when it comes to feeling the impacts of speech, with minority independents more likely to report feeling uncomfortable or unsafe because of the speech of others.
However, independents are broadly similar when it comes to interpreting more political examples of speech. They are firmly and cohesively between Democrats and Republicans in interpreting the legitimacy of either the 2020 racial injustice protests or the 2021 protests about election certification.
Black and African Americans
Black Americans are among the least likely to say they feel the First Amendment protects them, personally. Black Americans believe that Black and Black-aligned groups have the hardest time expressing free speech without consequences while white and conservative groups have an easier time.
Additionally, Black and African Americans report having the most negative experiences with speech. One in four Black Americans report feeling unsafe because of a statement made about their race, ethnicity, religion, gender or sexual orientation. Over half report feeling uncomfortable because of a similar comment, among the highest levels of any group analyzed in this report.
Black Americans are among the most likely to say that other values, such as inclusion or preventing violence, are of equal priority when compared with speech rights.
Hispanic and Asian Americans
Attitudes among Hispanic and Asian Americans represent, in many ways, the middle ground on free speech and expression issues across racial and ethnic groups. These Americans broadly feel protected by the First Amendment, though not quite as much as white Americans.
Asian and Hispanic Americans are generally very strong believers in freedom of speech and are among those least likely to believe freedom of speech is under threat. They generally rate their ease of expression as lower than other racial and ethnic groups in society.
These Americans, particularly Asian Americans, are highly likely to report that they have felt unsafe because of the speech of others.