Frequently Asked Questions: The Campus Free Expression (CAFE) Act

By December 17, 2015

What is the Campus Free Expression Act (CAFE)?

CAFE is legislation designed to prohibit public colleges and universities from limiting speech and expressive activity to unconstitutionally restrictive “free speech zones.” These “zones” are maintained by hundreds of public colleges and universities nationwide and restrict students’ First Amendment rights. Under CAFE, the open, outdoor areas of public campuses would be presumed available for students to exercise their free speech rights, subject only to the reasonable limitations discussed below. The first CAFE Act became law in Missouri. A similar law has been passed in Virginia as well. Both bills passed with overwhelming bipartisan support.

Doesn’t the U.S. Constitution already protect freedom of speech?

Yes, the First Amendment to the U.S. Constitution guarantees freedom of speech. For decades, the Supreme Court of the United States has held that public colleges and universities are required to protect the free speech rights of its students.

If the U.S. Constitution already protects expressive activity, why is the CAFE Act needed?

There are over 8,000 public colleges and universities in the United States. Unfortunately, FIRE’s research indicates that one in six public colleges use free speech zones to restrict student speech to tiny patches of campus, limiting students’ ability to engage with the campus community on the issues they are most passionate about. Many colleges and universities know these restrictive policies are unconstitutional—as case after case has demonstrated—but they maintain these restrictive policies anyway. The CAFE Act makes it easier for students to challenge these unconstitutional restrictions in court and removes any confusion college administrators may have about students’ rights to assemble.

Under CAFE, can a public university still have rules about when and where students can protest on campus?

Yes. The CAFE Act is not an “anything goes” law. It still allows colleges and universities to maintain reasonable time, place, and manner requirements—so long as those rules are content and viewpoint-neutral, further one of the school’s significant interests, and leave ample alternatives for students to engage in expressive activity. In plain English, this means that a college may prohibit loud protests from outside the campus library, classrooms, or dormitories where noise could disrupt other students from their studies. The CAFE Act is designed, in part, to change the mindset of college administrators and how they think about the First Amendment. Instead of limiting access to campus for expressive activity, CAFE requires administrators to recognize their campuses as ideal locations for discussion, dialogue, and debate.

Who can I contact if I have questions about my university’s policies?

FIRE works free of charge with students, faculty, and administrators to ensure campus policies promote free speech and academic freedom. If you have questions about your university’s policies, or if you would like to work with us to pass a CAFE Act in your state, please contact the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education (FIRE; thefire.org) by emailing us at info@thefire.org.