Model Speech Policies for College Campuses | The Foundation for Individual Rights and Expression

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Model Speech Policies for College Campuses

For years, FIRE has been cataloging speech codes — policies that impermissibly regulate or restrict student expression — at hundreds of American colleges and universities.

Spotlight on Speech Codes

This Model Speech Policies page is intended to be used as a resource for students, faculty, administrators, alumni, and others who strive to improve their college’s policies regulating student expression. This page will provide examples of the most common types of policies that FIRE’s Policy Reform team would recommend an institution adopt in order to ensure student expression is not stifled on campus.

As you review these model speech policies, please note that these are actual policies from various institutions in our Spotlight database, not policies drafted by FIRE. Recommending a specific policy (or an excerpt from that policy) does not imply FIRE’s endorsement of that institution’s overall approach — in policy or practice — to freedom of expression.

For a comprehensive set of policies drafted by FIRE, please see our Model Code of Student Conduct, which can be found at the bottom of this page. You can contact FIRE’s Policy Reform team at speechcodes@thefire.org.

Internet Usage Policies

Colleges typically maintain policies that regulate (and, all too often, impermissibly restrict) online expression by students. The following example demonstrates how an internet usage policy can be narrowly written to only prohibit speech that is not protected by the First Amendment.

Policy Example

Arizona State University: Computer, Internet, and Electronic Communications Information Management Policy

Relevant Excerpt
Unlawful communications, including threats of violence, obscenity, child pornography, and harassing communications, are prohibited.

all green light Internet Usage Policies

Harassment Policies

Policies prohibiting hostile environment harassment are necessary in order to meet universities’ legal obligations under federal anti-discrimination law, yet they routinely ban merely offensive or objectionable speech. The following policy example follows the proper legal standard for student-on-student (or peer) harassment in the educational context.

Policy Example

Alcorn State University: Student Handbook: Code of Conduct- Harassment (Physical or Verbal)

Relevant Excerpt
Harassment: (physical, verbal, graphic, written or electronic) that is (1) unwelcome; (2) discriminatory on the basis of race, color, religion, sex, national origin, age disability, genetic information, sexual orientation, or veteran status; (3) directed at an individual; and (4) so severe, pervasive, and objectively offensive that a reasonable person with the same characteristics of the victim would be adversely affected to a degree that interferes with his or her ability to participate in or to realize the intended benefits of an institutional activity, opportunity, or resource.

all green light Harassment policies

Policies on Tolerance, Respect, and Civility

Colleges and universities are free to encourage students to live up to aspirational standards such as respect and civility, but they may not require them to do so. The following example avoids the poor drafting and conflicting language that often plagues such policies, and instead makes clear that its terms are voluntary, not mandatory.

Policy Example

University of Southern Mississippi: Southern Miss Standard

Relevant Excerpt
The Southern Miss Standard was developed to embody the values we hope residents possess. At the same time, the university is strongly committed to freedom of expression. Consequently, these principles do not constitute university policy and are not intended to interfere in any way with a resident’s personal freedoms. We hope, however, that residents will voluntarily endorse these common principles, thereby contributing to the traditions and scholarly heritage left by those who preceded them, and will thus leave Southern Miss a better place for those who follow.

all green light Tolerance, Respect, and Civility policies

Bullying Policies

Policies addressing bullying and cyberbullying have often “trickled up” from K-12 to the collegiate setting, where they prohibit bullying in a problematic manner by including expression that is protected under First Amendment standards. The following policy demonstrates how bullying and cyberbullying can be properly defined by using the legal standard for student-on-student (or peer) harassment.

Policy Example

McNeese State University: Anti-Bullying Policy

Relevant Excerpt
McNeese State University defines bullying as “engaging in repeated actions which cause another person to experience intimidation, the unlawful use of physical force or harassment that is so severe, pervasive, and objectively offensive that it denies the victim equal access to the university’s resources or opportunities” … McNeese State University considers the following types of behavior examples of bullying, when they are part of a pattern of conduct that rises to the standard set forth above: …”

all green light Bullying policies

Protest and Demonstration Policies

Under First Amendment standards, colleges may put in place reasonable, viewpoint-neutral “time, place, and manner” restrictions on public expression in order to protect college activities from disruption. This policy is an example of such a narrow and permissible regulation.

Policy Example

Virginia Commonwealth University: Reservation and Use of Space

Relevant Excerpt

The university is committed to creating an environment that fosters the exercise of protected speech and other expressive activity on university property while maintaining an atmosphere free of disruption to the mission of the university. It recognizes that the free expression of ideas and open inquiry are essential in fulfilling its academic mission by embracing rigorous open discourse, argumentation, speaking, listening, learning and the exploration of ideas.

[ . . . ]

Any university student or employee may generally use campus spaces in accordance with university policy.

[ . . . ]

Advance notice and written authorization are required only for Major Events and Event Reservations, as described below.

[ . . . ]

1. Expected attendance over 150 persons unless the approved seated occupancy load of the space is greater than 150 persons, in which case any of the other factors render event a Major Event;

2. Setting with safety concerns (including time and location) based on assessment from the VCU Police;

3. The event is a dance or concert, regardless of how many attendees;

4. Presence of any object or substance requiring review by the Office of Environmental Health and Safety, including but not limited to any animal, open flame, firework, pyrotechnic, or other flammable or hazardous item;

5. Installation of any structure, such as a tent, stage, scaffold, bleacher, bounce house, or carnival-style ride;

6. Alcohol served; or

7. Outdoor amplified sound, including but not limited to bullhorns, Bluetooth speakers, etc.

[ . . . ]

Consistent with lawful protection of expressive activity, VCU will not charge security-related fees based on the content of the expressive activity, the likelihood of disruption caused by others than event attendees, or the actions of those who may protest the expressive activity.

all green light Protest and Demonstration policies

Posting and Distribution Policies

Policies on postings and flyers routinely limit the locations on campus where students and student groups can post such materials, require advance notice or approval, and even include content-based restrictions. The following policy avoids these pitfalls.

Policy Example

Southern Utah University: Free Speech and Advocacy on Campus

Relevant Excerpt
The University shall provide reasonable space indoors and outdoors for the posting of non-commercial signs, notices, posters, and banners by members of the University community. Subject to the limitations on unlawful/unprotected speech … Members of the University community may post non-commercial signs, notices, and posters on bulletin boards and kiosks located on SUU campus and maintained by the University; however, they may not be posted on bulletin boards or kiosks maintained by academic and administrative departments of the University or in classrooms.

all green light Posting and Distribution policies

Policies on Bias and Hate Speech

Many colleges have enacted policies aimed at eliminating “bias” and “hate speech” from campus, frequently interfering with student expression due to their broad definitions and their reporting and disciplinary elements. This policy example uses a narrow definition of bias incidents, and importantly clarifies that its purpose is to support impacted students, not to carry out disciplinary investigations or sanctions for protected expression.

Policy Example

University of Florida: UF RESPECT Team

Relevant Excerpt
The purpose of the RESPECT Team is to provide impacted parties of bias incidents opportunities to be heard and supported; understand and respond to situations that affect the University of Florida; educate and inform the community; and create awareness of ignorance and intolerance. The RESPECT Team provides services to witness(es), bystander(s), targeted individual(s), offender(s), or a member(s) of the community. The RESPECT Team does not investigate, adjudicate, or take the place of other UF processes or services. Rather, the RESPECT team complements and works with campus entities to connect impacted parties and communities with appropriate support and resources.

all green light Bias and Hate Speech policies

Security Fees Policies

Colleges sometimes hamper student groups hosting outside speakers by levying additional security fees for speakers deemed to be controversial, a practice that directly conflicts with First Amendment standards. This policy example avoids that problem by using clear, objective, and narrow criteria for administrators to apply when determining security costs.

Policy Example

Colorado State University: Large Event Guidelines

Relevant Excerpt

CSUPD will conduct a security assessment based on information provided from the event organizers and such other information CSUPD may obtain. CSUPD, in consultation with the CSU Public Safety Team, will assess security needs based on objective and credible evidence of specific risks, and not on assessment of the viewpoints, opinions, or anticipated expression of event speakers, sponsors, participants, community, or performers. Permissible factors for consideration include but are not limited to:

  • the proposed location of the event
  • the estimated number of participants based on event organizer estimates and any other relevant information, including past or similar events at CSU or other locations
  • the time of the day that the event is to take place
  • the date and day of the week of the event
  • the proximity of the event to other activities or locations that may interfere, obstruct, or lessen the effectiveness of the security measures being implemented
  • the resources needed to secure the event
  • the anticipated weather conditions
  • the estimated duration of the event
  • any similar viewpoint- and content-neutral considerations relevant to assessment of security needs.

[ . . . ]

Additional security fees will not be charged to event sponsors based on the subject matter of the event or the viewpoints, opinions, expression of the sponsors, event performers, or others participating in the event.

all green light Security Fees policies

Social Media Policies

In recent years, FIRE has seen a proliferation of policies regulating student speech on social media platforms such as Facebook, Twitter, and more. This policy example uses narrow language and bans only speech that is not protected by the First Amendment.

Policy Example

University of New Hampshire: Student Rights, Rules and Responsibilities: Student Social Media Policy

Relevant Excerpt

Policy: 1. The University may, but does not regularly monitor the language and/or actions of students on public social media platforms, including Facebook, LinkedIn, Twitter, etc. However, while the University will defer to the user policies of the individual social medium, it will hold students accountable for reported related Code of Student Behavior violations. Students may not use social media to:

1. to commit discriminatory harassment, …

2. Post messages that threaten another, Art. III.3.b, incite imminent lawless action, Art. III, 17, or are otherwise unlawful harassment, Art. III.3.c, are defamatory or otherwise unlawful, Art. III.12.

3. Claim or imply that they are speaking on behalf of the University.

4. Intentionally inflict emotional distress on others.

5. Violate any provision of the Acceptable Use Policy, OLPM UNH. VI.F.5.6, the Student Code of Conduct or provision of state or federal law.

6. The University recognizes that social media behavior is entitled to extensive protections under the First Amendment. The University guarantees and protects the speech rights of students. This policy will be interpreted with those protections in mind.

Link to all green light Social Media policies

Advertised Commitments to Free Expression

Public colleges are legally bound to respect their students’ First Amendment rights. Nearly all private institutions promise their students freedom of expression and thus should be held to the same standard as public institutions. The following example is what FIRE considers the “gold standard” for institutional policy statements on campus free speech.

Policy Example

University of Chicago: Report of the Committee on Freedom of Expression (the “Chicago Statement”)

Relevant Excerpt
In a word, the University’s fundamental commitment is to the principle that debate or deliberation may not be suppressed because the ideas put forth are thought by some or even by most members of the University community to be offensive, unwise, immoral, or wrong-headed. It is for the individual members of the University community, not for the University as an institution, to make those judgments for themselves, and to act on those judgments not by seeking to suppress speech, but by openly and vigorously contesting the ideas that they oppose.

all green light Advertised Commitments to Free Expression policies

Additional Resources

Student Group Funding and Recognition

All too often, colleges censor unpopular ideas and viewpoints by defunding (or refusing to officially recognize) student organizations with whom they disagree. In response, FIRE drafted a Model Policy for Allocating Student Fees, which is relevant to both administrators and the student governments that are regularly in charge of this process.

Model Code of Student Conduct

For a comprehensive set of policies put together by FIRE, check out our Model Code of Student Conduct. Drafted by FIRE, this model code is a guide for administrators drafting policies to govern student life.

Want to read more about campus speech codes? Visit FIRE’s Speech Code Resources page, and read our latest Spotlight on Speech Codes report.

Do you have questions about these model speech policies, or are you interested in contacting FIRE for more information about your institution’s speech codes? Contact FIRE’s Policy Reform team at speechcodes@thefire.org.