Free Speech on Campus
Free Speech at Public Universities
Updated: January 20, 2009
The First Amendment limits the right of government bodies and officials to restrict speech. Because they are funded by state governments and run as public entities, public universities fall under that category and the First Amendment applies.1 Public universities generally cannot prohibit student protests or rallies, even when their content offends the views of the school administration and many others on campus.2
These free speech rights, however, are not absolute.3 A public university can restrict the time, place and manner of protests on its campus in order to serve an important objective, such as ensuring that the speech does not interfere with classes, studying or other university events.4 A university can also use such restrictions to ensure that its students are safe from harm.
An example of a time, place and manner restriction is, “Bullhorns may only be used outside of the library between 12 p.m. and 2 p.m.” Here, the restricted time is between 12 p.m. and 2 p.m., the restricted place is outside of the library and the restricted manner of speech is the bullhorn.
Any campus rules restricting speech must be reasonable and content-neutral.5 A public university generally may not regulate the subject matter or viewpoint expressed by speakers. The above example meets these requirements because it applies to all speech regardless of content and is reasonably related to the university’s interest in maintaining the library as a quiet place to study.
Regulations must also “leave open ample alternative channels of communication”6 so that free speech is not stifled. The bullhorn restriction does not completely prohibit students from exercising their free speech rights outside of the library outside of the hours of 12 p.m. and 2 p.m.; rather, they just cannot do so using a bullhorn.
It would likely be impermissible, however, for the university to have a requirement that states, “Bullhorns may not be used outside of the library to protest university policies.” Although alternative channels of communication remain available (e.g., students can protest university policy without a bullhorn), this regulation restricts speech based on its message, and therefore, violates the content-neutrality requirement.
Although time, place and manner restrictions can be imposed on all speakers, whether they are students, faculty, staff or outside persons who have come to the university campus to voice their views, a public university is legally required to provide a location where people can speak freely.
1 Healy v. James
, 408 U.S. 169, 181 (1972) (“state colleges and universities are not enclaves immune from the sweep of the First Amendment”); Saunders v. The Virginia Polytechnic Institute
, 417 F.2d 1127, 1130 (4th Cir. 1969) (students’ freedom to express peaceful dissent on campus is more than a privilege; it is a basic right guaranteed by the First Amendment).
, 417 F.2d at 1130.
See Shamloo v. Mississippi State Bd. of Trustees of Inst. of Higher Learning
, 620 F.2d 516, 522 (5th Cir. 1980) (demonstrations can be prohibited if they are a material disruption of class work or school discipline).
(finding that demonstrations can be prohibited if they are a material disruption of class work or school discipline).
, 408 U.S. at 187-8.
6 Ward v. Rock Against Racism
, 491 U.S. 781, 802 (1989).