The First Amendment to the Constitution protects the freedom of religion, speech, of the press, and of the right of the people peaceably to assemble and to petition the Government for the redress of grievances. Free speech can include protests, demonstrations, rallies, vigils, marches, public speaking, distribution of printed materials, carrying signs, displays, and circulating petitions. The First Amendment protects loathsome, distasteful, offensive and unpopular speech with the same force as it protects speech that is celebrated and widely accepted. It is not the place of colleges and universities to censor the speech of people on campus or to shield people from ideas and opinions; instead, it is for UT’s students and faculty to make judgments about ideas for themselves.
Freedom of Speech on College and University Campuses
The University of Tennessee:
- Supports the rights of students and other members of the campus community to freely express their views for or against actions and opinions with which they agree or disagree;
- Recognizes a concurrent obligation to safeguard freedom of speech while, at the same time, maintaining an atmosphere on campus conducive to academic work; and
- Will preserve the dignity and seriousness of university ceremonies and public exercises and will respect the private rights of all individuals.
Yes, the university works to make our campus safe and welcoming to all students, and we greatly value civility and mutual respect. You can read about our principles of civility and community.
Not all speech is protected by the First Amendment. For example, harassment is not protected. Harassment means unwelcome conduct directed toward a person that is discriminatory on a basis prohibited by federal, state, or local law, and that is so severe, pervasive, and objectively offensive that it effectively bars the victim’s access to an educational opportunity or benefit.
Other kinds of speech, such as incitements to violence, are also not protected, but the rules for what makes a speech unprotected because of its danger of causing violence are very strict. In Brandenburg v. Ohio, the US Supreme Court held that the government cannot punish inflammatory speech unless it is directed to inciting or producing imminent lawless action and is likely to incite or produce such action.
The Rock is a standing area of free speech and free expression and has long been used to share thoughts, ideas, artwork, advertisements, events, and messages. People can paint on the Rock at any time.
The Rock is not limited to the university’s students, faculty and staff. The Board of Trustees has made a policy that allows people not affiliated with the university to communicate on the Rock, subject to time, place, and manner restrictions. You can review the policy on the UT Policy Central website.
Students, faculty, staff, and members of the community communicate the messages that they choose and anyone is allowed to paint the Rock.
People may not like or agree with a specific message on the Rock. When people are confronted with speech they do not agree with, the answer is more speech. If anyone sees a message they disagree with, they can paint their own message.
Hate speech is speech that offends, threatens, or insults individuals or groups on the basis of race, color, religion, national origin, sexual orientation, disability, or other traits. Developing policies that limit hate speech runs the risk of limiting an individual’s ability to exercise free speech. When a conflict arises about which is more important—protecting community interests or safeguarding the rights of the individual—a balance must be found that protects the civil rights of all without limiting the civil liberties of the speaker.
The best response to speech you do not agree with is more speech, so you can get your message out.
Members of the campus community who believe they are victims of a bias motivated incident or crime, or who have witnessed an incident or crime, can report to the Bias Incident website. The Bias Education and Response Team is available to support and guide students seeking assistance in determining how to handle a bias incident.
In responding to reports of bias, UT will not violate the First Amendment rights of students, faculty, or staff. Even when an incident of bias occurs, disciplinary or corrective action may not be taken toward the offender if it is determined that the act of bias was a protected exercise of their freedom of expression.
As a result, in many situations, the Bias Education and Response Team’s response to a bias incident will take the form of supporting the students adversely impacted by the bias incident. The team will facilitate services such as counseling, health services, or other referrals as needed to address safety concerns and to provide assistance and comfort to those impacted.
The university recognizes the need to provide students an avenue to advertise events and information for their various activities. The purpose of the policy on chalking is to balance the overall aesthetic appearance of campus with the need for student information sharing.
Students and student organizations may engage in chalking only on horizontal concrete or asphalt surfaces, surfaces that are in open areas that reasonably can be expected to be naturally cleaned by rain (e.g., not including under overhangs or other areas that could block the surface from being exposed to rain), surfaces on which chalking reasonably can be expected to done without jeopardizing the health or safety of the persons doing the chalking.
A list of areas in which chalking is not permitted is available in the Hilltopics campus policies section.
Facilities Services staff may clean up chalking as part of the daily maintenance of the campus.
Student organizations, faculty, or university units can invite people not affiliated with the university to participate in free speech activities.
There are a few spaces on campus that can be rented out to groups that are not affiliated with the university for private events. Additionally, nonaffiliated people can participate in free expression activities on certain streets and sidewalks.
The fact that the university has rented a facility to a group not affiliated with the university or allowed a group to speak on campus does not mean that the university has approved of or endorsed the group’s message.
The university maintains the generally accessible, open, outdoor areas of its campus as traditional public forums for free speech by students. Students generally have the right to engage in spontaneous outdoor assemblies, except in places that have been previously reserved by others.
Nonaffiliated people can engage in protest activities on the streets and sidewalks that are open to them for free expression activities.
The university may impose reasonable time, place, and manner restrictions regarding any protest activity. See Hilltopics for the policy on Freedom of Assembly and Demonstration.
The distribution of leaflets and handbills and the circulation of petitions on campus for students are free and unhindered. A list of guidelines for posting or distributing in certain facilities due to traffic or specialized usage can be found in the Literature Distribution section of Hilltopics.
Nonaffiliated people can pass out materials on the streets and sidewalks that are open to them for free expression activities subject to time, place, and manner restrictions.
The university does remove unauthorized posters, graffiti-style writing, and messages placed in areas or on buildings where they are prohibited.
Both commercial and noncommercial solicitations are prohibited in nonpublic areas of the university. Solicitations and sales in public areas of the university are restricted to invitees, registered organizations, and faculty, staff, and students of the university and are subject to reasonable restrictions as to time, place, and manner.
More information on the university’s solicitation policy can be found on the Hilltopics website.
Information on solicitation, information distribution, and associated university and state policies is also available on the Center for Student Engagement website under Solicitation and Event Requests.
The Board of Trustees has enacted a Policy Affirming Principles of Free Speech for Students and Faculty, which communicates the university’s commitment to freedom of speech.
Additionally, information is shared via email with every student, faculty member, and staff member to remind them that the university promotes and upholds the First Amendment and that the university has the responsibility for promoting freedom of speech on our campus. The email also links to the text of the Campus Free Speech Protection Act.
The message emphasizes that all students and faculty are free to state their own views about and contest the views expressed on campus, and to state their own views about and contest speakers who are invited to express their view on the campus, but that they may not substantially obstruct or otherwise substantially interfere with the freedom of others to express views they reject.
The university works year-round to educate students about freedom of speech through information online and in print as well as through scheduled programming. The Division of Student Life sets up tables with information on campus to speak to students about freedom of speech. Presentation requests are accepted for classes or organizations interested in learning more about First Amendment and Free Speech topics on campus.
Recent events have included “Constitution Day! I Have a Right To…” hosted by the Howard H. Baker Jr. Center for Public Policy and “Free Speech and Politics” panel hosted by the College of Communication and Information. During the spring 2017 semester, the Baker Center hosted “Understanding the First Amendment on Campus,” a panel moderated by Jeffrey Rosen, president and CEO of the National Constitution Center.
During Welcome Week in August, all new students attend a “New Vol Welcome” panel that covers topics including freedom of speech. Additionally, the Dean of Students Office has set up tables on Pedestrian Mall to provide information about freedom of speech.