Freedom of Speech on University Campuses

IUP Free Speech Project -- Words: Use responsiblyFreedom of speech is not only an important individual right, it's essential to a healthy democracy, and absolutely vital to the core mission of the university. As a public university, IUP is committed to the ideals of free speech protected by the First Amendment of the United States Constitution.

According to the First Amendment of the US Constitution,

Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the Government for a redress of grievances.

In general, freedom of speech is the right, protected by the First Amendment, of individuals to express their opinions publicly without governmental interference.

That means that the First Amendment limits only government, not private entities such as businesses, organizations, private schools, or private individuals. Because they are created by state governments, public universities such as IUP are considered government entities which can't limit the speech rights of students.

When everyone has freedom of speech, it means that we may be exposed to mean, hurtful, even offensive comments. It may seem odd or unfair that the First Amendment protects offensive speech, but freedom of speech is a two-way street. If my right to express my ideas is protected, it means that someone who vehemently disagrees with me can also express their ideas.

Common Campus Scenarios Involving the Freedom of Speech

Social Media

Social media enables offensive content to reach large audiences in a heartbeat. But social media is protected by the First Amendment in the same way as old-school media. Universities are not permitted to censor content, nor can they punish someone who posts an offensive message.

Controversial Speakers

A primary mission of universities is to facilitate and protect the free exchange of ideas, including offensive comments by invited speakers. Blocking access to a speaker or heckling to the point that no one can hear the speaker can be punished because such actions violate the free speech rights of both the speaker and the audience. But protestors also have free speech rights, and there are legal ways to express disapproval, such as peacefully picketing the event, scheduling a competing event, or passing out information objecting to the speaker's message. Universities can, however, regulate the time, place, and manner of protests to ensure that the normal operation of classes or university business is not disrupted.

In the Classroom

The First Amendment also protects ideas inside the classroom, although instructors can limit topics to those that are relevant to the academic discipline of the course. They can also place time limits on class discussions, and require that written or verbal statements conform to academic and disciplinary requirements. But when communicating about relevant topics, the First Amendment does protect the viewpoints expressed by both students and faculty, so long as the learning environment is not substantially disrupted.

Resources on the First Amendment and Freedom of Speech on Campus

ACLU Speech on Campus

Newseum Free Speech on Public College Campuses

National Constitution Center

First Amendment Basics, posted by the University of Arizona Dean of Students Office

Speak out listen up graphic 737

Prompted by recent controversies, universities are educating their communities about what the First Amendment means on a college campus.


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