Students march through campus holding signs saying Say no to censorship and expression is a human right
Division of Student Affairs

Get Informed - Free Speech 101

“If there is a bedrock principle underlying the First Amendment, it is that the government may not prohibit the expression of an idea simply because society finds the idea itself offensive or disagreeable.”

-Justice William Brennan's opinion for the Court in the 1989 flag-burning decision Texas v. Johnson.

References - Further Reading

US Constitution

Free speech is a constitutionally-established right that has been consistently upheld by the highest courts in the United States. Scroll down to learn more about free speech and its exceptions, student expression and inclusion on campus, hate speech and more.

Speech is one of the freedoms protected by the First Amendment to the U.S. Constitution. The First Amendment to the U.S. Constitution protects free speech of members of the university community and their ability to speak on matters of public concern as private citizens:

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 of the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the Government for a redress of grievances.

Students march on campus The First Amendment to the U.S. Constitution protects free speech of members of the university community and their ability to speak on matters of public concern as private citizens. Through the Fourteenth Amendment of the Constitution, the First Amendment’s protections were made effective against governmental entities such as the state and public institutions of higher education.

The First Amendment protects not only speech, but also expressive activities. The types of expression that the courts have determined are expressive activities include kneeling for the natoinal anthem, flag-burning, burning draft cards, political cartoons, protest armbands, political buttons and slogans on T-shirts. As another example, during the second wave of the feminist movement in the 1960s, women burned their bras to protest gender inequality.

Speech involving issues of public concern, such as political and social matters, have the most protection. But while some activity — such as burning a cross — may be protected as First Amendment speech, it could nevertheless be subject to criminal prosecution, if it violates criminal laws that do not involve the content of the speech.

Protected Free Speech
  • Expressive activities
  • Written words
  • Verbal speech
  • Online posts
  • Yard signs
  • Flyers and handouts
  • Music, dance and other art
  • Clothing
Unprotected Free Speech

  • Severe harassment
  • Obscenity
  • Incitement to imminent lawless action
  • True threats

The courts determine on a case-by-case basis whether speech falls within one of these exceptions. When judging each case, the courts use high thresholds for what types of speech may be limited and lean towards finding most forms of expression to be protected, no matter how hateful or offensive it may be.

Why is Free Speech Important?

Students protest at CPP about the Spadra FarmOur First Amendment rights are something that set us apart from other countries and societies. There are many examples throughout our country’s history of how the protection of speech has helped important causes, movements and people when others tried to silence them. We have the right to express ourselves freely and take a stand for what we believe in without fear of censorship or punishment from authority.

Hate Speech

There is no exception for hate speech under the First Amendment, technically meaning that even hate speech is constitutionally protected. There is also no legal definition for hate speech, although it is understood to mean hurtful or offensive speech targeted towards a certain person or group.

The U.S. Supreme Court has maintained freedom of speech even when it goes to extremes to offend, as seen in these examples:

  • A Ku Klux Klansman’s racist, inflammatory speech at a Klan rally was held by the Supreme Court to fall within the protections of the First Amendment because it did not advocate imminent lawless action.
  • The Supreme Court upheld the decision to allow neo-Nazis to march in Skokie, Illinois, a town that, at the time, had the highest concentration of Holocaust survivors in the United States.
  • The Westboro Baptist Church’s pattern of attending military funerals and engaging in virulent anti-gay speech was held by the Supreme Court to be protected under the First Amendment.

Limits to Free Speech

Free Speech and Inclusion at CPP

Students march at CPP in support of DACACPP is committed to the freedom of expression and committed to the fostering of inclusive and welcoming learning environments on campus.

Free speech is powerful – it can inspire, motivate and lead to change and innovation. Depending on the message, it can also be extremely hurtful and hateful. Our speech could potentially have a negative effect on those around us, even though we have the right to free expression and even if we meant well with our intentions. With that, campus community members are encouraged to reflect on the impact their message can have.

When there is speech that may be considered offensive or wrong, the best solution is often more speech instead of less. Some may think it is easier to cancel or silence speakers, but students are always encouraged instead to form a better response and debate, refute or engage in civil conversation with opposing ideas.

Student Protests - Then and Now

Offensive Speech on Campus

Campus Speakers