Communication Currents

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Think-Alouds Can Help Students Understand the First Amendment

June 23, 2021
Freedom of Expression, Instructional Communication

How tolerant are university students of potentially offensive speech on campus? Common narratives about U.S. students suggest that students do not welcome speakers to campus if they find their speech offensive. In a new article published in NCA’s First Amendment Studies, Jeffrey L. Bernstein and Cameron W. Armstrong examine how students think through free speech issues using the “think-aloud” method, whereby they work through a topic verbally. By examining this thinking process, the authors seek to understand how students form attitudes about free speech on campus and when speech should be limited. 

The Think-Aloud Process

Bernstein and Armstrong audio recorded think-aloud sessions with eight undergraduate students and then analyzed the transcriptions. The students were presented with information about several controversial speakers who had been invited to speak on college campuses. The first two were Charles Murray, whose book The Bell Curve is criticized by some as racist, and former Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice, whose stance on torture and human rights has come under scrutiny. After reading about the speakers and college campuses’ reactions to them, the students indicated whether the speaker should be allowed to speak by placing a marker on a whiteboard. The continuum between “Should Not Be Allowed to Speak” and “Should Be Allowed to Speak” was divided into five sections, which allowed students to indicate their different levels of comfort. 

Students then did the same for Bill Ayers, Richard Spencer, Louis Farrakhan, and David Horowitz. In addition to placing additional markers for each speaker, they were allowed to move markers that they had previously placed if they wished to do so. After all markers had been placed, students discussed the question, “If you were advising the university president on creating a policy regarding controversial campus speakers, what factors would enter into your policy?” The authors avoided intervening in the process, except to prompt students with questions such as, “What are you thinking?”


Bernstein and Armstrong identify three exemplar cases of student thinking (all names are pseudonyms): Will (who leans toward limiting speech), Melissa (who is libertarian on speech issues), and Julie (who tends to have a more nuanced approach). 


Will frequently emphasized the need to prioritize the safety and well-being of marginalized groups on campus and was more likely to support limiting speech that might be deemed discriminatory. In deciding whether a speaker should be allowed, such as Charles Murray, Will considered whether allowing the speech would be considered an endorsement of the speaker’s views: 

So I guess that raises the question more of is inviting somebody onto campus to speak giving them a platform? And in giving them a platform is that the institution’s acceptance of this person? Because I would say that if you’re inviting somebody to speak on your campus, that is saying that this person is an academic and is of upstanding character to come and speak to those that this institution is educating. I would agree that giving a platform is endorsing this person.

This logic was also apparent when Will discussed whether Richard Spencer, a white nationalist, should be allowed to speak: 

I know who Richard Spencer is. That’s gonna be a strong no, absolutely not. Nope, no, no. He is very specifically violent towards racial groups; he’s a literal Nazi, no. That should not be allowed on campus. He has plenty of platforms.

Will’s reaction regarding Spencer demonstrates how concerns about campus safety, protecting students, and platforming or endorsing speakers can factor into students’ feelings about controversial speakers. Will was specifically concerned about the use of campus resources to fund speakers or to fund security measures because of concerns about violence. 


In contrast to Will, Melissa took a more libertarian approach and generally supported speakers’ rights to First Amendment protections. Melissa was familiar with the need for laws related to the First Amendment to be content neutral and prioritized that: 

I guess as long as you’re not using your words to encourage someone to take action in a violent way you should be allowed to say what you want and if people don’t like it then that’s fine, they don’t have to like it…

Melissa even applied the content-neutral approach to Spencer, despite saying, “This is hard because I don’t agree with his ideas at all.” In fact, the only speaker that Mellissa opposed was Bill Ayers who had previously committed bombings. Unlike Will, Melissa did not foreground safety concerns and only addressed safety once in the context of an imminent threat of violence: 

I think that they [universities] should be really clear, and I think that their policy should be if they are encouraging people to actually take action in a violent way, then they should not be allowed to speak.

Finally, Melissa did not see allowing someone to speak as an endorsement of that person’s ideas and suggested that universities might make statements to clarify where they stand on particular issues, rather than cancelling or not scheduling speakers. 


Julie represents the center of the continuum and offered a more nuanced approach between Will’s and Melissa’s perspectives. Julie supported allowing some controversial speakers with whom people might disagree. For example, in regard to Condoleezza Rice, Julie said: 

[Y]ou shouldn’t always agree with everything everybody does politically; however, you should still listen and if anything just gain a new viewpoint or further add that to why you don’t believe in it.

Similarly, Julie sided with allowing Murray and Ayers to speak, although Julie’s support of Ayers was tempered. In contrast, Julie did not want Spencer, Farrakhan, or Horowitz to speak. Julie offered these thoughts on Farrakhan and Horowitz:

If they’re both promoting very hateful things like saying we should cause violence for these people, I would definitely say no, but maybe like if you were to [moderate it] so that way it doesn’t get hateful; I feel like it’s hard to not let it get hateful.

Julie was conflicted over limiting speech and was also concerned with campus safety. At times, Julie tended toward limiting speech when there might be an imminent threat of violence, but also balanced that with contending with the First Amendment. 


Bernstein and Armstrong found that three major themes emerged in the think-aloud: safety, platforming, and content neutrality. First, when discussing standards that should apply to campus speakers, six of the eight students prioritized safety. They shared concerns about the physical safety of both students and the speaker. Second, during the think-aloud sessions, platforming was a frequent topic of conversation. Some students were concerned about whether inviting a speaker was the same as endorsing their opinion, as opposed to just offering speakers a venue in which to speak. Finally, students frequently discussed content neutrality. Some students were concerned about censoring content, while others were more concerned about the impact of discriminatory content. Bernstein and Armstrong hope that future think-alouds will continue to help them understand how students make sense of the First Amendment. 

This essay was translated by Mary Grace Hébert from the scholarly journal article: Jeffrey L. Bernstein & Cameron W. Armstrong (2021): Using think-alouds to understand how students balance free speech and inclusion, First Amendment Studies, DOI: 10.1080/21689725.2021.1884113

About the author (s)

Jeffrey L. Bernstein

Eastern Michigan University

Professor of Professor Political Science and Jewish Studies

Jeffrey L. Bernstein

Cameron W. Armstrong

Eastern Michigan University

MPA Graduate, Department of Political Science

Cameron W. Armstrong