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Polling expert: Viral free speech study is “junk science”

(Leah Hogsten/The Salt Lake Tribune via AP, Pool)

A survey released by the Brookings Institute, focused on the topic of free speech and political violence, attracted a lot of attention last week, especially in light of recent events at UC Berkeley. Despite its viral nature, the findings may be wrong.

The survey, produced by John Villasenor, a professor and senior fellow at Brookings and a professor of electrical engineering at the University of California Los Angeles, suggested that about 20 percent of college students believe that the use of violence is permissible when using it to silence offensive speech.

But now, the survey findings are under fire. Cliff Zukin, a former president of the American Association of Public Opinion Polling, called the survey “junk science” and “malpractice.” The Association sets ethical standards for polling, and according to Zukin, “[the survey] should never have appeared in the press.”

Zukin does not believe that the survey fairly represents the nation’s college students. “If it’s not a probability sample, it’s not a sample of anyone, it’s just 1,500 college students who happen to respond,” he said.

According to The Guardian, the survey was administered online as an “opt-in” panel, and answered by participants who identified themselves online as “current college students.” This means that the survey was not administered to a “probability sample” – a random sampling of college students across the country.

The survey has also received criticism due to the timing of its conduction. It posed the question of using violence to stop offensive speech just days after neo-Nazis marched in Charlottesville, Virginia in August.

Chris Jackson, the vice-president of Ipsos Public Affairs, believe that this timing greatly affected the response of participants.

“If someone asks you that two days after Charlottesville, who do you think of immediately? You think of neo-Nazis,” Jackson said.

Villasenor defends his survey and said that the timing was “purely coincidental.” He is troubled by the atmosphere on college campuses, saying that the “freedom of expression is deeply imperiled.”

Villasenor’s survey found that 53 percent of students were in favor of a “positive learning environment…prohibiting free speech.” However in 2016, a more nationally represented survey conducted by Gallup revealed that 78 percent of students believed that colleges should be an environment of “open learning.”


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