Law students and freedom of expression: An empirical case study

Authors Victoria Bronstein, Daryl Glaser, Merle Werbeloff

ISSN: 1996-2126
Affiliations: University of the Witwatersrand
Source: South African Journal on Human Rights, Volume 28 Issue 1, 2012, p. 55 – 80


Against a background of rhetorical and potential legal assaults on freedom of information and media freedom in South Africa, the authors set out to investigate levels of support for freedom of expression amongst law students at the University of the Witwatersrand. The findings were mixed, with evidence that students strongly support generic pro-freedom of expression statements but that their support buckles when confronted with hard cases, such as satirical Zapiro cartoons. While students give weak support to political freedom of expression directed at the government, they are outrightly hostile to citizen-on-citizen offensive speech, many being willing to contemplate bans. Final-year students show up as somewhat more supportive of political freedom of expression than first-year students, while white students across both years are somewhat more supportive of freedom of expression than black students. There is however considerable diversity of views amongst black students and some evidence that racial differences in support for freedom of expression are influenced by attitudes to the current government. The results add to other evidence suggesting that supporters of freedom of expression in South Africa may not be able to call upon consistent or robust elite and popular support in resisting repressive government moves.