Students in front of a free speech wall
Tips and Tricks for Campus Free Speech Walls

By November 25, 2013

Throughout the fall semester, students across the country have been holding “free speech wall” events at their schools to raise awareness about First Amendment rights on campus. Just last week, students at Mesa Community College in Arizona kicked off the restart of their Young Americans for Liberty chapter with a free speech wall! The student organization used its event as an opportunity to boost club membership while encouraging fellow students to take advantage of their First Amendment rights by expressing themselves on the wall.

Last Thursday, as part of FIRE’s Fall Webinar Series, Peter Bonilla, director of FIRE’s Individual Rights Defense Program, presented a webinar on free speech walls, “Free Speech Walls and Beyond: Promoting and Defending the First Amendment on Campus.” In case you missed it, here are just a few answers to common questions summarized from what Peter covered:

Q. What is a free speech wall?
A. Pretty much what it sounds like. Free speech walls are structures set up on high traffic areas on campus where students are allowed to write and express their opinions. Walls can be made out of poster board, large rolls of paper, plywood, or even boards covered in chalkboard paint.

Q. What if someone writes “hate speech” on my free speech wall? Is hate speech harassment?
A. No. There is no “hate speech” exception to the First Amendment, and truly harassing conduct (as opposed to speech) must be “so severe, pervasive, and objectively offensive that it effectively bars the victim’s access to an educational opportunity or benefit.” Davis v. Monroe County Board of Education, 526 U.S. 629, 633 (1999).

Q. How do I deal with campus administrators when planning my event?
A. Here are a few tips:

  • Plan well ahead of time.
  • Be friendly and courteous with administrators.
  • Document your discussions with administrators thoroughly and make sure everything is in writing.
  • Know your handbook and other student policies.
  • Remember, when registration is needed, administrative approval cannot be conditioned on the content or viewpoint of your event.

Q. If my free speech wall event is vandalized or not allowed by the administration, can I contact FIRE?
A.  Yes, you can submit a case to FIRE at thefire.org/cases/submit.