Free Speech on Campus
Free Speech at Private Universities
Updated: January 20, 2009
As mentioned previously, because private universities are not government entities, the First Amendment does not strictly limit the actions of university officials on their own property in the same way as at public universities. Thus, in most states, private universities have greater leeway than their public counterparts to regulate and even prohibit speech on campus, including placing restrictions on both the form and content of on-campus speech.
However, this power to regulate is not absolute. Most private universities are subject to federal loan regulations, state constitutions or state laws that limit their right to curb free speech in much the same way as does the First Amendment. In some states, many private universities have chosen to adopt First Amendment principles in regulating campus behavior, even though they are not required to do so. Whether these protections are provided by law or campus policy, they create a duty for the university to protect expressive activities.
Virtually all colleges and universities, both public and private, affirm the principle of academic freedom. Academic freedom, though not absolute, is an even more expansive doctrine than the First Amendment. A more detailed explanation of academic freedom is provided later in this Guide. Information on your university’s free speech policies is typically located in the school’s student handbook or code of conduct.