Frequently Asked Questions

Free Speech


FAQs were adapted, with permission, from content developed by the University of California, Berkeley.


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.

How does the First Amendment right to free speech apply to controversial speakers who have been invited to CSUF by student groups?

The Constitution prohibits any public institution, from banning or punishing speech based on its content or viewpoint. Because campus policy permits Registered Student Organizations to invite speakers to campus and provides access to campus venues for that purpose, the university cannot take away that right or withdraw those resources based on the views of the invited speaker. Doing so would violate the First Amendment rights of the student group.

Only under extraordinary circumstances, described below in the "Which types of speech are not protected by the First Amendment?" section, can an event featuring a speaker invited this way be cancelled.

Secondly, once a speaker has been invited by a student group, the campus is obligated and committed to acting reasonably to ensure that the speaker is able to safely and effectively address their audience, free from violence or disruption.

Can CSUF cancel a student-sponsored event if the administration or the campus community disagrees with the speaker’s views?

No, this would violate established law and the rights of student groups to invite whoever they wish to the CSUF campus. Only student groups who invite speakers have the authority to disinvite them.

What are “time, place, and manner” restrictions? How do they relate to controversial speakers?

The Supreme Court has said that public entities like CSUF 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. The campus 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, CSUF 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. The campus heeds its police department’s assessment of how best to hold safe and successful events. The campus 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, etc.).

The need to consider time, place and manner regulations is the reason that we require students to work with the administration when setting up their events, as opposed to scheduling and creating the events on their own without campus input.

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How is the President’s Directive translated from the First Amendment?

The first amendment applies to “government” entities, which includes states and a public institution/university such as CSU. As a public institution if the University opens up areas of the campus as a forum for speech, it may establish content neutral, time, place and manner directives related to the speech, which set rules for the “how” of the speech (where, when), but not regulate or censor what is said or permit or deny speech on account of the viewpoint expressed. The directives include this type of “content neutral time, place and manner” rules as to the "how."


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 their physical safety is not protected by the First Amendment. For example, if a demonstrator yelled at an individual student and threatened a physical assault to the student, then 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 the university 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 as a campus we strive to be a community where no one will choose to express hate.

If it is known that an event with a controversial speaker may lead to physical violence, is that legal grounds for the university to cancel the event?

The Supreme Court has made it clear that a public institution like CSUF cannot prevent speech on the grounds that it is likely to provoke a hostile response. Stopping speech before it occurs is called a “prior restraint,” and prior restraints of speech are almost never allowed.

While the campus is constitutionally required and committed to doing what it can to protect speakers and to prevent disruption or violence, if despite all efforts by the campus there is a serious threat to public safety and no other alternative, a speaker’s event can be cancelled. This is a last resort, and never done based on the views of the speaker. The campus’s paramount need is to protect the safety of its students, staff and faculty.

Beyond the campus’s legal requirements, does CSUF believe in the value of all kinds of opinions and perspectives?

Absolutely. CSUF supports the notion of a “marketplace of ideas,” in which speech that a person disagrees with should be met with more speech that engages and debates it. The First Amendment and the university are founded on the premise that we are all better off if ideas can be expressed and responded to, rather than be subject to an imposed orthodoxy of belief and punished for deviating from it.

As a community of educators free speech is important to CSU’s mission of teaching and learning. Many ideas now fundamental to our understanding of the universe and our place in it – such as evolution or climate change – were initially attacked. Freedom of speech is so important to the university that one of the university’s bedrock principles is academic freedom, which protects faculty in their research and teaching, as well as the speech of students.