ITHACA, N.Y. — Free speech. Everyone talks about it. Fewer actually understand it, let alone practice its principles. Apparently, in the city of the gorges, when people talk about the right to speak out, they’re better than other cities at practicing what they preach.

The results were reported in a study by professors Christopher Claassen (Univ. of Glasgow) and James Gibson (Washington University in St. Louis). A general audience write-up was recently published by the Washington Post, and the more through, formal scientific paper about the research can be found here. The study examined nationally representative surveys performed over a period of several years. These surveys included questions about civil liberties, and the extent to which respondent support the extension of civil liberties to all, including those who advocate views that they may find highly disagreeable or objectionable.

More specifically, the questions fell into two general categories. The first set involved generalized views on civil liberties – this may include questions such as, are teachers obligated to defend government policies, should people have to carry a national ID card at all times, whether the government has a right to your emails and phone conversations, and whether law enforcement should be allowed to racially profile and monitor non-violent protesters.

The second set of questions changed the dynamic up a little bit. It asked if respondents thought that those with views they find strongly objectionable or contemptible should be allowed to make speeches, hold public rallies, or run for office. Their views may be considered immoral, unethical or intended to inflict emotional pain unto others, but do they have a right to assembly and to say their ideas?

The researchers had 4,000 responses to work with, which is sizable, but not really enough for a breakdown of 365 metropolitan areas. So to expand its applicability, they looked at things they could break down with statistical significance – age, region, gender, education, race – and applied a predictive model to the demographics of an area.

According to the authors’ summary in the Washington Post, “{t}he most tolerant metro areas are…college towns such as Boulder, Colo.; Ithaca, N.Y.; and Corvallis, Ore. As previous research on tolerance in the states has found, regional patterns are also evident, with tolerance predominating in the upper Midwest and Mountain West, and intolerance in the South.”

Take a look at the map above before you go running to the comments section. Note that it doesn’t split up along clear political lines. Liberal cities like Ithaca are tolerant. So are more conservative burgs like Cheyenne, Wyoming. Large cities like New York, Chicago and Houston are cosmopolitan perhaps, but not especially warm towards tolerance of dissenting views. Nor are most places in the Deep South. If one tries to split this up as “libs vs cons”, they’re fitting a square peg in a round hole.

Taking things a step further, the researchers trawled for all reports of political protest as a measure of publicly expressed dissent, and weighed it by population and demographics. They found areas of higher tolerance tended to see higher rates of protest. Further modeling of data and demographics seemed to suggest that higher tolerance leads to higher rates of protest – people feel freer to engage in public expression without fear of repercussions.

Readers may roll their eyes at the latest Commons protest or opinion piece, but it appears to invigorate support for free speech, as no one person’s opinions are always the most popular on any political topic.

Brian Crandall

Brian Crandall reports on housing and development for the Ithaca Voice. He can be reached at bcrandall@ithacavoice.com.