Free speech on college campuses

13 Aug

The U.S. Constitution should be cherished by every American. Here is information about the First Amendment from the Legal Information Institute:

first amendment: an overview

The First Amendment of the United States Constitution protects the right to freedom of religion and freedom of expression from government interference. See U.S. Const. amend. I. Freedom of expression consists of the rights to freedom of speech, press, assembly and to petition the government for a redress of grievances, and the implied rights of association and belief. The Supreme Court interprets the extent of the protection afforded to these rights. The First Amendment has been interpreted by the Court as applying to the entire federal government even though it is only expressly applicable to Congress. Furthermore, the Court has interpreted, the due process clause of the Fourteenth Amendment as protecting the rights in the First Amendment from interference by state governments. See U.S. Const. amend. XIV.

Two clauses in the First Amendment guarantee freedom of religion. The establishment clause prohibits the government from passing legislation to establish an official religion or preferring one religion over another. It enforces the “separation of church and state.” Some governmental activity related to religion has been declared constitutional by the Supreme Court. For example, providing bus transportation for parochial school students and the enforcement of “blue laws” is not prohibited. The free exercise clause prohibits the government, in most instances, from interfering with a person’s practice of their religion.

The most basic component of freedom of expression is the right of freedom of speech. The right to freedom of speech allows individuals to express themselves without interference or constraint by the government. The Supreme Court requires the government to provide substantial justification for the interference with the right of free speech where it attempts to regulate the content of the speech. A less stringent test is applied for content-neutral legislation. The Supreme Court has also recognized that the government may prohibit some speech that may cause a breach of the peace or cause violence. For more on unprotected and less protected categories of speech see advocacy of illegal action, fighting words, commercial speech and obscenity. The right to free speech includes other mediums of expression that communicate a message.  The level of protection speech receives also depends on the forum in which it takes place.   

Despite popular misunderstanding the right to freedom of the press guaranteed by the first amendment is not very different from the right to freedom of speech. It allows an individual to express themselves through publication and dissemination. It is part of the constitutional protection of freedom of expression. It does not afford members of the media any special rights or privileges not afforded to citizens in general.

The right to assemble allows people to gather for peaceful and lawful purposes. Implicit within this right is the right to association and belief. The Supreme Court has expressly recognized that a right to freedom of association and belief is implicit in the First, Fifth, and Fourteenth Amendments. This implicit right is limited to the right to associate for First Amendment purposes. It does not include a right of social association. The government may prohibit people from knowingly associating in groups that engage and promote illegal activities. The right to associate also prohibits the government from requiring a group to register or disclose its members or from denying government benefits on the basis of an individual’s current or past membership in a particular group. There are exceptions to this rule where the Court finds that governmental interests in disclosure/registration outweigh interference with first amendment rights. The government may also, generally, not compel individuals to express themselves, hold certain beliefs, or belong to particular associations or groups.

The right to petition the government for a redress of grievances guarantees people the right to ask the government to provide relief for a wrong through the courts (litigation) or other governmental action. It works with the right of assembly by allowing people to join together and seek change from the government.

Peter Bonilla explains why free speech rights on college campuses are important in a PolicyMic article.

In Free Speech On College Campuses a Must, Especially During Election Seasons:

As I’ve written here on PolicyMic, though, and as the case log and publications of my employer, the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education (FIRE), make clear, colleges and universities frequently fall far short of being the bastions of free speech they should be. Further, they often come down especially hard on political expression at the very times when it’s most relevant. Part of the problem is universities’ tendency to misinterpret their obligations under the Internal Revenue Code, which prohibits nonprofit educational institutions from engaging in certain political activities, such as institutionally supporting candidates for office.  

Such misinterpretations frequently lead university administrations to prohibit or restrict broad swaths of protected speech, defying both the First Amendment and common sense. The University of Oklahoma, for example, in 2008 banned “the forwarding of political humor/commentary” using university e-mail accounts. That same year, the University of Illinois system issued warnings to faculty against engaging in basic political activities — including wearing campaign buttons, attending rallies, and even placing stickers on their cars. Then in 2011, Illinois’ flagship campus in Urbana-Champaign proposed an electronic communications policy that would have banned any and all “political campaigning” by faculty and students. Fortunately, these policies were all revised or scrapped after FIRE objected. Yet such misconceptions by universities are common enough that FIRE has issued and re-issued a policy statement on political activity to guide universities in policy and practice.

See, Censorship of Free Speech on College Campuses Grows

and Why Students Need a Guide to Free Speech on Campus More Than Ever

Trent M. Kays sums the Free Speech issues nicely in a USA Today opinion piece.

In Opinion: College is about free speech, not stamping out rights, Kays opines:

Social networking sites have caused grief for many people, from politicians to student-athletes. Certainly, there appears to be a lack of digital literacy among those who use these sites. Digital literacy requires us to not only be aware of and know how to use digital tools and sites, but also to consider the consequences of said use.

It has become critically important for digital literacy to be taught in college, and student-athletes and their athletic coaches should be first on the list.

There are many examples of universities and athletic coaches banning social networking sites, most notably Twitter, from being used by student-athletes.

Instead of helping student-athletes understand Twitter, they prefer to just outright ban its use.

Recently, Mississippi State basketball coach Rick Stansbury banned his team from using Twitter because some of his student-athletes posted critical comments following a loss. This was a frighteningly egotistical move by Stansbury — to think he has the authority to so easily stamp out the free speech rights of his student-athletes.

Whether or not those student-athletes should have posted critical comments regarding Stansbury’s performance as an athletic coach is beside the point. Those student-athletes have a right to free and protect speech, including critical commentary, as guaranteed under the US Constitution.

Stansbury isn’t the only one flippant about student rights and free speech.

Other athletic coaches at universities around the nation have also haphazardly decided to stamp out the free speech rights of their student-athletes. This is a disheartening trend. When athletic coaches implement such policies on their student-athletes, it signals they do not trust their student-athletes outside of sporting contexts.

College is about education, and while sports are certainly a significant and important part of the college experience, it isn’t everything.

Twitter use among student-athletes should be encouraged and not banned. Athletic coaches should encourage their student-athletes to use Twitter and all social networking sites with critical awareness and consideration for potential consequences.

Here is information about the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education:

About FIRE

  • What is FIRE?
    The Foundation for Individual Rights in Education, or FIRE, is a nonprofit educational foundation based in Philadelphia. FIRE’s mission is to defend and sustain individual rights at America’s colleges and universities. These rights include freedom of speech, legal equality, due process, religious liberty, and sanctity of conscience—the essential qualities of individual liberty and dignity. FIRE protects the unprotected and educates the public about the threats to these rights on our campuses and about the means to preserve them.
  • How do I join FIRE?
    You can join the fight for liberty on America’s college campuses by joining MyFIRE, our online community of supporters interested in FIRE issues. You will receive personalized updates pertaining to cases of your interest and alma mater. You can also sign up for our e-mail list and receive the latest news and updates on cases happening around the country.
  • How can I contribute to FIRE?
    FIRE offers its donors many different options for donating including the option to give right now through our secure online donation form. To learn about all the ways you can contribute, see our Ways to Donate page.
  • I care about the issues. What can I do?
    FIRE encourages you to Take Action in cases that you feel passionately about. On our website, we have given students, faculty, every-day citizens, and lawyers examples of ways they can help create change on college campuses. From hosting FIRE speakers, to posting widgets on your website, to writing to university administrators, there is a lot you can do to help the fight for liberty.
  • I feel my rights were violated, who can help?
    FIRE encourages you to Take Action in cases that you feel passionately about. On our website, we have given students, faculty, every-day citizens, and lawyers examples of ways they can help create change on college campuses. From hosting FIRE speakers, to posting widgets on your website, to writing to university administrators, there is a lot you can do to help the fight for liberty.
  • Who works at FIRE?
    FIRE employs a diverse staff from across the ideological and political spectrum with varying educational backgrounds. For more information about individual members of FIRE’s Staff please check out the biographies on the Staff webpage.
  • What is FIRE’s political affiliation?
    FIRE is nonpartisan; its staff, Board of Directors, and Board of Advisors comprise individuals from across the political spectrum.
  • How does FIRE pick its cases?
    FIRE responds to all case submissions. We only take cases, however, that fall within FIRE’s mission and programs. FIRE has limited resources and receives a remarkable number of requests for help. We are, therefore, unable to take many cases that touch upon important issues. FIRE does not adjudicate genuine questions of academic merit, which sometimes arise during tenure reviews and grading of student work. FIRE also does not take cases that are from the staff of colleges or universities, involve elementary or high schools, are from outside the United States, or are submitted by phone or fax.
  • Does FIRE litigate?
    Since its incorporation as a nonprofit organization in 1999, FIRE has intervened successfully in defense of liberty-related issues on behalf of hundreds of students and faculty members at colleges and universities across the country. While many of the cases we accept can be resolved quickly and amicably by FIRE’s staff, other cases require the intervention of an attorney. Because FIRE does not undertake direct litigation, these cases must be referred to FIRE’s Legal Network, a nationwide team of outside attorneys who share our principles, values and goals.
  • What are FIRE’s Guides to Student Rights on Campus?
    Guidesto Student Rights on Campusis a set of innovative, widely respected, and well-received handbooks that serve as a vehicle for changing the culture on college and university campuses. They do so by emphasizing the critical importance of legal equality over the selective assignment of rights and responsibilities, of self-governance over coercion, and of the rule of law and fair procedure over the ad hoc and arbitrary imposition of partisan and repressive rules.A distinguished group of legal scholars from across the political and ideological spectrum serves as Board of Editors to this series. The diversity of the members of this Board proves that liberty on campus is not a question of partisan politics, but of the rights and responsibilities of free individuals in a society governed by the rule of law.


    Guides to Student Rights on Campus include:

  • FIRE’s Guide to Free Speech on Campus,
  • FIRE’s Guide to Religious Liberty on Campus,
  • FIRE’s Guide to Due Process and Fair Procedure on Campus,
  • FIRE’s Guide to Student Fees, Funding, and Legal Equality on Campus,
  • FIRE’s Guide to First-Year Orientation and Thought Reform on Campus.

The general public may download the Guides free of charge from FIRE’s website. Students may order hard copies at no cost through the website; non-students may purchase them through


Center for Campus Free Speech                    

Free Speech Off Campus Must Be Protected      

Column: Free speech sacks ban on college-athlete tweets

Student Press Law Center                                                  

Free Speech, Social Media and Community Colleges: Let the Clash Begin

Dr. Wilda says this about that ©

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