Free Speech and Campus Events
How does the First Amendment right to free speech apply to speakers who have been invited by student groups to speak on campus?
As a public institution of higher education, Iowa State University is committed to fostering free speech and the open debate of ideas. Iowa State is prohibited from banning or preventing an invited speaker based on the content or viewpoint of their speech. University policy permits student groups to invite speakers to campus, and the university provides access to certain campus venues for that purpose. Iowa State cannot take away that right or withdraw those resources based on the views of the invited speaker.
Once a student group has invited a speaker to campus, Iowa State will act reasonably to ensure that the speaker is able to safely and effectively address their audience, free from violence or disruption.
Although Iowa State cannot restrict or cancel an invited speaker based on the content or viewpoint of the speech, the university is allowed to place certain content- and viewpoint-neutral limits on how the speech can take place. These limits can be based on the “time, place and manner” of the speech.
Forum Analysis on Campus
The right to use particular locations on campus for speech activities is dependent on the character and/or location of the property where the speech occurs. For example, if a speaker speaks on a campus walkway, the walkway is the relevant forum; if the speaker posts a flyer on a bulletin board inside a university building, the bulletin board becomes the relevant forum. Generally, there are three kinds of “forums” on campus: the public or “traditional” forum, which receives the greatest protection; the limited or “designated” forum, which receives limited protection; and the non-public forum, which receives very limited protection.
A public forum is defined as public property that has traditionally been available to assembly or debate, e.g., streets, parks and lawn areas. ISU may not prohibit all speech activity in such locations, and a high standard is required to enforce any content-based prohibitions, i.e. prohibitions that relate to the content/subject matter of the message being delivered. The university may regulate the time, place, and manner of speech in public forums if the regulations are content neutral, narrowly tailored to serve a significant interest and leave open ample alternative channels of communication. Time, place and manner regulations are discussed below.
Limited or designated forums are areas that have not been traditionally public, but which has been specifically identified as such by the university, e.g., an auditorium or an event space. Once designated, ISU may not restrict speech at a designated public forum, even though it was not required to create the forum in the first place. ISU is not required to indefinitely designate a forum as open, but as long as it does, it is bound by the same standards that apply in a traditional public forum. Therefore, reasonable time, place and manner regulations are permissible, but any content-based prohibitions must be narrowly drawn to effectuate a compelling interest.
Non-public forums which are not open for public speech by tradition or designation receive very little protection. ISU may adopt reasonable time, place, and manner regulations that apply to these areas, or may reserve them for their intended purposes only. If their intended purposes include speech-related activity, any regulation must be reasonable and not an effort to suppress expression merely because of the speaker’s viewpoint (viewpoint neutral).
A good example of the distinction between a designated forum and a non-public forum is a campus bulletin board. A bulletin board on which anyone is allowed to post notices is a designated forum, and removal of material based on content is prohibited. However, the university could specifically make the bulletin board available only for official department postings and then the board could be cleared of material that does not meet the criteria set by the department, based on its content.
What are “time, place and manner” restrictions?
Governmental bodies, including public universities need to be able to ensure safety, security, order and the functioning of its primary operations. The right to speak on campus is not a right to speak at any time, at any place and in any manner that a person wishes. Content- and viewpoint-neutral restrictions on the times and modes of communication, often referred to as “time-place-manner” restrictions, are common features universities implement to ensure that they can continue to fulfill their mission while allowing free expression to occur. Simply put, this means that the “when, where and how” of free-speech activity may be reasonably regulated if such regulation (1) is neutral (in other words, it must apply to speech generally not just “objectionable” or “controversial” speech and (2) leave open ample alternative channels for communication of the information.
Examples of time-place-manner restrictions include permit or registration requirements, notice periods, sponsorship requirements for speakers, limiting the duration and frequency of the speech, limiting the use of loud speakers or blow-horns that would be unreasonably disruptive, and restricting speech during final-exam periods.
The need to consider time, place and manner regulations is the reason the university requires students to work with administration when setting up certain events, as opposed to students scheduling and creating the events on their own without university input.
University policies may permit reservation of university grounds or facilities, including the outdoor areas of campus, provided any system of reservation is applied in a viewpoint-neutral manner. The use of outdoor areas of campus or other university grounds and facilities for non-commercial expressive activity may be conditioned upon the payment of reasonable expenses to be incurred by the university in accommodating a speaker or event. Expenses must reasonably reflect the actual costs estimated to be incurred by the university, and under no circumstances shall costs be based on the viewpoint of any speaker (pursuant to the Board of Regents for the State of Iowa policy on Freedom of Expression: https://www.iowaregents.edu/plans-and-policies/board-policy-manual/42-freedom-of-expression).
Can Iowa State cancel a student-sponsored event if the administration or the campus community disagrees with the speaker’s views?
No, Iowa State is prohibited from canceling an event based on the viewpoint of a speaker. The Board of Regents for the State of Iowa policy on Freedom of Expression states that “the universities shall encourage students and staff to hear diverse points of view from speakers and programs sponsored by the university and/or recognized student, faculty, and employee organizations” (Board of Regents for the State of Iowa policy on Freedom of Expression).
In general, Iowa State cannot prevent speech on the grounds that it is likely to provoke a hostile response. Stopping speech before it occurs due to the potential reaction to the speech is often referred to by courts as the “heckler’s veto” and is a form of “prior restraint.” Prior restraints of speech are rarely allowed.
The university is required to do what it reasonably can to protect invited speakers and prevent disruption or violence. Although the university is committed to fulfilling these obligations, if despite all efforts by the university there is a serious threat to public safety and no other alternative, an event can be canceled. Iowa State’s primary concern is to protect the safety of its students, faculty and staff. Iowa State’s Police Department can make security and threat assessments with input from federal, state and local law enforcement agencies. Viewpoint neutral security fees may be charged to the invited speaker / organization inviting the speaker.
Can people who oppose a speaker’s message use their own freedom of speech to shout down that speaker’s message?
No. Freedom of speech does not give individuals permission to silence the speech of others by shouting, heckling, preventing or otherwise unreasonably disrupting a speech to the point that the speaker cannot continue or that the audience can no longer listen. The free-speech rights of the speaker would be violated if the audience could silence anyone with whom they disagreed. If individuals were allowed to shout down speech that they disagreed with, then open and free debate would be impossible. Intentionally disrupting a speaker may result in administrative action or charges (student disciplinary or criminal) against the disruptive individual. Although members of the university community are free to criticize and contest the views expressed on campus, and to criticize and contest speakers who are invited to express their views on campus, they may not obstruct or otherwise unreasonably interfere with the freedom of others to express views they reject.
If someone is holding an event on campus, can I protest it?
Yes. A part of free speech and expression is the right to engage in peaceful, nonviolent protest. The university expects all who engage in protest activity to do so peacefully and safely. Below are some reminders for how to protest safely:
- Avoid conduct that infringes on the rights of others, such as blocking or preventing the movement or access of others.
- Follow the instructions of a police officer or university officials, such as staying behind barricades, dispersing from an area declared an unlawful assembly, and not resisting arrest. It is against the law to disobey a lawful order by a police officer, and it is a violation of university policy to disobey a direction from a university official.
- Leave the area where others are engaging in illegal activities and acts of violence. Your presence may be interpreted as participating in a riot or illegal group action. Staying overnight in a campus building after hours is prohibited.
- Refrain from inciting others to commit acts of violence such as pushing, kicking or spitting on others, destruction of property or other unlawful actions.
- Make informed decisions. If you choose to engage in civil disobedience and get arrested, know the potential consequences.