Frequently asked questions about the First Amendment
Below is a series of questions and answers related to free speech on campus, the First Amendment, the rights of student groups and controversial speakers, and UF’s commitment to community safety.
- What is freedom of speech and what does it protect?
Freedom of speech is the right of a person to articulate opinions and ideas without interference or retaliation from the government. The term “speech” constitutes expression that includes far more than just words, but also what a person wears, reads, performs, protests and more.
In the United States, freedom of speech is strongly protected by the First Amendment of the U.S. Constitution, as well as many state and federal laws. The United States’ free speech protections are among the strongest of any democracy; the First Amendment protects even speech that many would see as offensive, hateful or harassing.
- What are UF's responsibilities to protect free speech rights?
The University of Florida is governed by the U.S. Constitution’s First Amendment, which limits its ability to restrict freedom of speech, even if the content is considered offensive or hateful. The university cannot prohibit speakers from coming to campus just because individuals from the campus or surrounding community disagree with the content of the speaker’s presentation or with his or her opinion.
UF can set limits on a speaker’s appearance that aren’t related to speech content. Those limits include setting reasonable time, place, and manner restrictions. Those rights also include not allowing speech to occur in a manner that disrupts classrooms, research labs, and offices.
Neither the First Amendment nor the Public Functions policy requires the university to put anyone’s safety at risk when the campus has identified a serious threat of imminent harm to students, faculty, and staff. It is the safety risk – not the speaker’s viewpoint – that would be the sole basis for a decision to decline a request.
- What are "time, place and manner" restrictions and how do they relate to controversial speakers?
The Supreme Court has said that public entities such as UF have discretion in regulating the “time, place, and manner” of speech. The right to speak on campus is not a right to speak any time, at any place and in any manner that a person wishes. UF can regulate where, when and how speech occurs to ensure the functioning of the campus and achieve important goals, such as protecting public safety.
When it comes to controversial speakers, UF invokes this necessary authority in order to hold events at a time and location that maximizes the chance that an event will proceed successfully and that the campus community will not be made unsafe. UF heeds its police department’s assessment of how best to hold safe and successful events.
The university might invoke its time, place and manner discretion, for example, to ensure that an event with a highly controversial speaker would be held in a venue that the campus police force believes to be protectable (e.g. one with an ample number of exits, with the ability to be cordoned off, without floor to ceiling glass, etc.).
- How does UF handle requests from outside speakers?
When UF receives requests from outside speakers to rent campus space, the administration reviews those requests based on the appropriate facility use policies. The university has a long history of welcoming speakers with a wide range of viewpoints; there is no process to review the remarks of outside speakers. However, the administration reserves the right to decline or cancel any event if officials determine it poses serious safety risks and imposes an imminent threat of violence to campus.
- Which types of speech are not protected by the First Amendment?
The Constitution guarantees freedom of speech by default, placing the burden on the state to demonstrate whether there are any circumstances that justify its limitation. When it comes to controversial speakers delivering remarks on campus, the relevant exceptions to the First Amendment that have been established are:
- Speech that would be deemed a “true threat”: Speech that a person reasonably would perceive as an immediate threat to his or her physical safety is not protected by the First Amendment. For example, if a group of students yelled at a student in a menacing way that would cause the student to fear a physical assault, such speech would not be protected.
- Incitement of illegal activity: There is no right to incite people to break the law, including to commit acts of violence. To constitute incitement, the Supreme Court has said that there must be a substantial likelihood of imminent illegal activity and the speech must be directed to causing imminent illegal activity. For example, a speaker on campus who exhorts the audience to engage in acts of vandalism and destruction of property is not protected by the First Amendment if there is a substantial likelihood of imminent illegal activity.
- Harassment in an educational institution aimed at an individual on the basis of a protected characteristic (race, gender, sexual orientation, religion); that is also pervasive and severe; is a direct or implied threat to employment or education; or creates an intimidating, hostile and demeaning atmosphere: For example, posting racist messages on the dorm room of an African American student would be regarded as harassment and not speech protected by the First Amendment.
- What is hate speech? Is it illegal?
The term “hate speech” does not have a legal definition in the United States, but it often refers to speech that insults or demeans a person or group of people on the basis of attributes such as race, religion, ethnic origin, sexual orientation, disability or gender. While UF condemns speech of this kind, there is no “hate speech” exception to the First Amendment and it is only illegal if it falls into one of the categories described above. In fact, on many occasions, the Supreme Court has explicitly held that prohibitions or punishments for hateful speech violate the First Amendment.
Just because there is a First Amendment right to say something, however, doesn’t mean that it should be said. The First Amendment protects a right to say hateful things, but we strive as a campus to be a community where no one will choose to express hate.
- Some universities, including public ones, have denied or cancelled the appearances of polarizing speakers. Why doesn't UF do the same?
Several public universities have denied requests from controversial speakers citing the possibility of violence as a cause to invoke prior restraint in the name of public safety. We are not aware of any public university that has cancelled an already scheduled appearance, or an invitation issued by a legally independent student group.
It should be noted that in previous attempts to block controversial speakers from appearing on campuses, some of them have sued those campuses and won. Lawsuits were filed against some public universities that denied such requests; in several cases, the court ruled that the universities had to allow the events to proceed.
Cancelling events must be a last resort to be used only when the campus, despite taking all reasonable steps, believes that it cannot protect the safety of its students, staff and faculty. Events can never legally be canceled based on the likely offensiveness of the speaker’s message.