What is Freedom of Speech?

The First Amendment of the U.S. Constitution states, “Congress [i.e., the government, and by extension, employees of the state including public institutions such as ISU] shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the Government for a redress of grievances.”

Freedom of speech is the right of a person to articulate opinions and ideas without interference, retaliation or punishment from the government. The term “speech” is interpreted broadly and includes spoken and written words as well as symbolic speech (e.g., what a person wears, reads, performs, protests, and more). The First Amendment protects speech even when the ideas put forth are thought by some or even by the majority of individuals to be illogical, offensive, immoral, or hateful.  Indeed, in Texas v. Johnson (1989), the Supreme Court stated, “If there is a bedrock principle underlying the First Amendment, it is that government may not prohibit the expression of an idea simply because it finds it offensive or disagreeable.” Public universities such as Iowa State are subject to the constitutional restrictions set forth in the First Amendment, both in state / federal law, and so may not take action infringing on an individual’s freedom of speech.

Freedom of speech and a commitment to vigorous debate and open inquiry does not mean that individuals may say whatever they wish, wherever they wish.  The university may restrict speech that falsely defames a specific individual; that constitutes a genuine threat or harassment; that is intended and likely to provoke imminent unlawful action, or that otherwise violates the law.  In addition, the university may reasonably regulate the time, place, and manner of speech to ensure that it does not disrupt the ordinary activities of the university. The exceptions have been interpreted narrowly by the Supreme Court and other state and federal courts.



Some content adapted from: https://www.ncsu.edu/free-speech/.



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