Civil Rights

Freedom of Expression: Can Public Universities Bar Controversial Speakers on Campus?

By E.A. Gjelten, Author and Editor
Public colleges and universities may have reasonable rules for where, when, and how invited speakers can appear on campus, but administrators can’t bar speakers just because they’re controversial or because some students might protest their appearance.

Public colleges and universities have long been hotbeds of free speech debates. But as divisions between political camps become sharper, college administrators often struggle to protect the First Amendment rights of both the student groups who invite controversial speakers to campus and other students who want to protest those speakers. If those protests become violent—or are likely to do so—safety concerns are added into the balance.

When university officials have to cancel or reschedule controversial speakers because of actual or threatened violence, it creates difficult First Amendment issues as well as headlines. Surprisingly, few federal appellate courts have addressed this issue, but there are some legal guidelines.

Reasonable Restrictions Without Censorship

Once a public college or university allows any outside speakers on campus, the administration isn't allowed to pick and choose among those speakers based on their political viewpoint. That would violate the First Amendment rights of both the speaker and the students who want to hear what the speaker has to say. Schools may set rules on where, when, and how speeches by campus visitors can take place, but those rules should:

  • be reasonable
  • not be related to the speaker’s political or social viewpoints
  • not allow administrators so much discretion that they can effectively discriminate against speakers with unpopular opinions, and
  • be “narrowly tailored,” meaning that the rules are designed to serve the school’s legitimate concerns (such as safety or not interfering with classes) with as few restrictions on free speech as possible.

For instance, a university may require that all student groups put in their requests for outside speakers in advance and estimate how many people will come, so the administrators can find an appropriate time and venue.

Inciting Violence?

Under general free speech principles, government may censor speech that’s meant to incite listeners to take immediate illegal action and is likely to have that effect. (For more details, see our article on speech that’s not protected under the First Amendment.) What about speakers whose mere presence on campus is likely to provoke disruptive protests because of their views? In a case from 1969, a federal judge explained that in this situation, law enforcement should “quell the mob, not the speaker” (Stacy v. Williams, 306 F.Supp 963 (DC Miss 1969)). But so far, the U.S. Supreme Court and federal appellate courts haven’t directly addressed the issue of how schools may respond when there’s evidence that an invited speaker’s appearance will lead to violence.

Questions for Your Lawyer

  • Can I sue a public university if it didn’t do enough to stop private hecklers from drowning out my speech?
  • My student group at a public college has invited a speaker who’s famous for provocative opinions advocating white nationalism. The school is charging us a high security fee because they expect serious disruption at the event. Isn’t the fee a violation of our First Amendment rights to have access to the speaker’s ideas?
  • A public university has told me that I have to get a permit three weeks in advance before I can speak at a plaza on campus that’s always been considered a “free speech zone.” They also say I have to tell them what I’m going to talk about. Can I sue the administrators for violating my First Amendment rights?
Go to main FAQ page on the First Amendment and free speech.
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