Do Divisive Figures Have the Right to Speak at Your University?

The last few years have been marked by news about divisive figures attempting to speak at universities. In most cases, these are far-right public figures attempting to speak at left-leaning college campuses or campuses in liberal cities.

With all the chaos they create, you might be wondering whether these divisive figures have the right to speak at universities.

The answer to this question is complicated, but we’ll try to break down the answer (as it currently stands) here.

Note: This answer applies to public institutions. Private institutions are not covered by the First Amendment and do not have a constitutional responsibility to uphold in regards to the First Amendment.

Free Speech Is a Right – Right?

Free speech is protected by the First Amendment of the United States Constitution. That has been affirmed by the courts over and over again. And the Supreme Court has affirmed this right for students speaking on college campuses.

But it’s not clear how that applies to speaks like Richard Spencer, Milo Yiannopolous, and Ann Coulter.

Universities that receive public funding are technically a public forum, which means that divisive personalities have a right to speak there, but that right is not unlimited.

The court considers a public college campus to be a “limited public forum”, which is different to a street or public park.

Because your campus is a “limited public forum”, your university is legally allowed to create rules for speakers when they apply to speak at the school. However, the university can’t discriminate; the rules that apply to former-President Barack Obama would also need to apply to Fox News commentator Sean Hannity.

So, campuses can force all speakers into a certain hall or schedule them for times when the campus would otherwise be empty, but those rules have to apply to all speakers.

Can My University Say No to Speakers?

Public schools generally can’t say no to speakers.

If a student organization invites a speaker to campus, there is a legal precedent that says it’s a school’s “constitutional responsibility” not to interfere with the request by denying it or by using discriminatory rules.

Your university can say no to speakers. But it can only say no if there is reason to believe that the speaker will advocate for violence against the government or against the institution they’re speaking at. However, even when there are threats of violence, it is tricky to block speakers if it looks like the university is blocking a specific point view.

What About Hate Speech?

Hate speech is covered when schools are allowed to stop speakers who will promote violence against the government or institution. However, this speech must be intended to produce violence, must be a true threat, or must use fighting words that are personally abusive and are spoken in a face-to-face matter.

Questions about controversial speakers aren’t going away, and the answers may someday become clearer. Did this article answer your questions about free speech on campus? Share your thoughts in the comments below.



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