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This page is intended to introduce students, faculty and staff, and friends of the University of Minnesota to the laws and policies governing the University as a public institution with regards to freedom of expression. Here, you will find legislation, freedom of expression experts, a history of expression at the University, and off-campus resources dedicated to supporting freedom of expression.

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"As an institution of learning and discovery, where our work often builds new understanding, it is imperative that we provide a place for diverse views and opinions. Not only does the U.S. Constitution require us to do so, but it is our tradition. It is a part of who we are. Protecting free speech has never been easy. Indeed, it can often feel as if there is too little, or too much, but hardly ever, just enough. But we cherish and guard it, and it has endured because it is one of our most important universal rights and one of the powerful tools we have to create change and build understanding. I know that some views hurt individuals and communities and can lead to a sense of isolation and marginalization. I have deep empathy for those who are negatively impacted by the speech or actions of others. I want to assure you that I take issues of safety and belonging very seriously. The University condemns speech that promotes prejudice and discrimination. Though we honor the discourse, we do not always support what is said. I am strongly committed to creating inclusive and welcoming environments where everyone is respected, valued, and safe, has a strong sense of belonging, and can be their best selves."  

– President Joan T.A. Gabel

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State, federal legislation and constitutional amendments

State, federal legislation and constitutional amendments

The First Amendment to the United States Constitution establishes religious freedom, free speech, free press, freedom of association and protest, and freedom to petition the government. The First Amendment prohibits any level of government from passing laws and regulations “respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the Government for a redress of grievances.”

The Supreme Court of the United States has clarified how the First Amendment, particularly its protection of free speech, is applied to colleges and universities. Students enjoy freedoms of speech, protest, association, inquiry, and other First Amendment protections while attending college. 

Below are several links to the text of the First Amendment, free expression as protected in the Minnesota State Constitution, and other resources regarding First Amendment law. 

Controversial Ideas and Offensive Speech

By the nature of the University’s educational purpose, new ideas and different worldviews will challenge students in and out of the classroom. Many of these new perspectives are intended to broaden students’ understanding so that they may act in ways of leadership to change society for the better. As students grow in their understanding of the world, they are likely to experience discomfort and may be offended by certain ideas expressed on campus. In many cases discomfort is necessary for growth. 

What remains a challenge for our campus community, and campuses across the nation, is how to handle discomfort and offensive ideas that threaten or challenge students' abilities to learn. The University supports students’ right to speak and protest against ideas they find offensive, and encourages students to advocate for social justice on and off campus. 

There are a few categories of unprotected speech: these forms of speech are unconstitutional and are not protected by the law. The Congressional Research Service has compiled a brief of these categories of unprotected speech. If you have experienced an unprotected form of speech, please visit Support for University resources.

Visit Engage for ways to express dissenting viewpoints.

Hate Speech on Campus

Hate Speech has No Place in Our Community

Hate speech has no place in our University community. A key guiding principle to fulfilling the University’s mission is sustaining “an atmosphere of mutual respect, free from racism, sexism, and other forms of prejudice and intolerance” throughout all activities. The University of Minnesota unequivocally condemns speech that supports prejudice and discrimination. The University’s condemnation of hate is not a violation of the First Amendment, but rather is essential to preserving a diverse learning environment. 

All members of our community, not just students, are encouraged to confront hateful speech with speech of their own. Our community cannot rely on Black, Indigenous, Students of Color; LGBTQIA+ students; and others who hold historically marginalized identities to defend our community’s values. The community calls on those who hold power and privilege in our society to defend our shared commitments to diversity, equity, and inclusion. 

Visit Engage for ways to fight hate speech with more speech.

 

Legal Status of Hate Speech

While the First Amendment is the cornerstone of the University’s educational mission, the First Amendment also protects speech that is hateful. Hate speech does not have a recognized legal definition in the United States. Attempts by government or public universities to regulate racist, sexist, transphobic, homophobic, and other forms of hate speech have been struck down by the Supreme Court because these regulations were viewed as unconstitutional content-based prohibition of speech. 

Critical legal scholars argue hate speech should not be protected by the First Amendment. They find that hate speech causes its targets psychological and physiological harm, and implies others are inferior because of their identity. Critical legal scholars argue hate speech should equate to true and direct threats or fighting words, both of which are not protected forms of speech.

When hate speech becomes so pervasive and severe that it interferes with someone's ability to work and/or learn at the University, it becomes discriminatory harassment. The First Amendment does not protect discriminatory harassment or targeted threats. The University has a moral and legal obligation to take action to support students’ equal opportunity and access to education, which is articulated in policy through Board of Regents Policy: Equity, Diversity, Equal Opportunity, and Affirmative Action

 

Further Reading

University Policies

Several policies at the University of Minnesota reaffirm students’ right to free expression. 

 

  • Board of Regents policy: Student Conduct Code
    • The Student Conduct Code governs the conduct of all University of Minnesota students. Students rights and responsibilities under the First Amendment is key feature of the Code’s guiding principles:
    • “Students are entitled to the rights and responsibilities of other citizens with regard to freedom of speech, peaceable assembly, and right to petition. Students are entitled  to exercise their rights to inquire and dissent, speak freely, and peaceably assemble and protest to the extent permissible under both the First Amendment and the Student Conduct Code.”

 

  • Board of Regents policy: Code of Conduct
    • The Code of Conduct applies to Regents, administrators, staff, and faculty. It further establishes the University’s commitment to promoting academic freedom and responsibility for all staff, faculty and Regents. 
    • Section 3, Subd. 6. Preserve Academic Freedom and Meet Academic Responsibilities
    • Academic freedom is essential to achieving the University's mission. Community members are expected to:
      • promote academic freedom, including the freedom to discuss all relevant matters in the classroom, to explore all avenues of scholarship, research, and creative expression, and to speak or write as a public citizen without institutional restraint or discipline
      • meet academic responsibilities, which means to seek and state the truth; to develop and maintain scholarly competence; to foster and defend intellectual honesty and freedom of inquiry and instruction; to respect those with differing views; to submit knowledge and claims to peer review; to work together to foster education of students; and to acknowledge when an individual is not speaking for the institution

 

  • Board of Regents policy: Equity, Diversity, Equal Opportunity, and Affirmative Action
    • The Equity statement affirms the University of Minnesota system’s commitment to promoting diversity and equity on our campuses.
      • As a member of the University community, you are entitled to “an environment for faculty, staff, students, and visitors that actively acknowledges and values equity and diversity and is free from racism, sexism, ageism, homophobia, and other forms of prejudice, intolerance, or harassment.”

A History of Student Activism on Campus

Protests and activism from students have had profound impacts on the history of the University of Minnesota. Here are a few key examples from the University’s past that demonstrate the importances of protecting and supporting student voices.

  • A Campus Divided: Digital curation by Professor Emerita Riv-Ellen Prell. In the 1930s and 1940s, University Presidents and Deans enacted segregationist and discriminatory practices against Black and Jewish students through housing discrimination and surveillance of students. Student activists fought the University’s administration through reports, essays, editorials, and newspaper articles. Learn how their efforts utlimately ended racial segregation in on-campus housing and protected the rights of students. 

 

  • Portraits of the Past: Article by Noah Barth, research assistant in the University Archives. In the early 20th Century, student rights were hardly protected on the University campus. Read an article about how students met covertly to study journalism and called out the University for dismissing the first African American professor at the University of Minnesota under anti-communist and anti-Black ideologies. 

 

  • Remembering the Morrill Hall Takeover: Article by Susan Maas, University of Minnesota Alumni Association. In 1969 after months of limited or no action from the University on the demands from the Afro-American Action Committee, students organized a 24-hour occupation of Morrill Hall. The actions of these students resulted in the creation of the African American & African Studies department, the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. program, and other scholarships, admissions and counseling services for Black students and Students of Color. Read an article on an overview of the Morrill Hall Takeover with an interview from Professor Emeritus John Wright. 

 

  • 1970 Student Strike–50 Years Later: Article by Katlyn Morken, a project archivist for the University Archives. College campuses across the United States were especially tense over the Vietnam War throughout the 1960s and 1970s. At the University of Minnesota, students organized a strike and joined protests across the Twin Cities against the US involvement in Vietnam. Read more how student organizing impacted the University, and state and federal government. 

 

  • Eight Days in May: Podcast episode presented by Hannah O’Neill, a project archivist for the University Archives. As the Vietnam War escalated, student protests at the University of Minnesota obstructed Washington Ave and clashed with police and National Guard to express dissatisfaction with US involvement in Vietnam. Listen to and read the transcript for a podcast about anti-Vietnam War protests on and around campus in May 1972.

 

  • Regents vote against renaming Coffman: Article by Austen Macalus and Jake Steinberg, Minnesota Daily. Following the findings of the Task Force on Building Names and Institutional History (read the report here), former University President Eric Kaler recommended four buildings on the Twin Cities campus be renamed. Student government supported the unnaming and renaming of the buildings. The Board of Regents rejected the recommendation to rename the buildings. Read an article from the Minnesota Daily that describes the protests during the special meeting of the Board of Regents; read and watch Dr. John Wright’s speech at the meeting here.

 

  • Student Actions Prompt UMN To Rethink Its Relationship With Minneapolis Police: Interview by Ailsa Chang, NPR. In the wake of George Floyd’s killing by police and subsequent uprisings across the nation, past president of the Minnesota Student Association, Jael Kerandi, issued a 24-hour ultimatum to University President Gabel to divest from Minneapolis police. Listen to and read a brief interview with past president of the Minnesota Student Association, Jael Kerandi, about her advocacy and fight for racial justice. 

Past Documents and Work on Free Speech in U of M Shared Governance

Resources

  • Jane Kirtley | [email protected]
    • Professor Jane E. Kirtley is the Silha Professor of Media Ethics and Law at the Hubbard School of Journalism and Mass Communication at the University of Minnesota, and directs The Silha Center for the Study of Media Ethics and Law.

 

  • Karen Miksch | [email protected]
    • Associate Professor of Higher Education & Law
      Department of Organizational Leadership, Policy, & Development
      University of Minnesota

 

 

  • American Civil Liberties Union | https://www.aclu.org/
    • “For nearly 100 years, the ACLU has been our nation’s guardian of liberty, working in courts, legislatures, and communities to defend and preserve the individual rights and liberties that the Constitution and the laws of the United States guarantee everyone in this country. Whether it’s achieving full equality for LGBT people, establishing new privacy protections for our digital age of widespread government surveillance, ending mass incarceration, or preserving the right to vote or the right to have an abortion, the ACLU takes up the toughest civil liberties cases and issues to defend all people from government abuse and overreach.”

 

  • FIRE | https://www.thefire.org/
    • “FIRE’s mission is to defend and sustain the individual rights of students and faculty members at America’s colleges and universities. These rights include freedom of speech, freedom of association, due process, legal equality, religious liberty, and sanctity of conscience—the essential qualities of liberty.”

 

  • PEN America | https://pen.org/
    • “PEN America stands at the intersection of literature and human rights to protect free expression in the United States and worldwide. We champion the freedom to write, recognizing the power of the word to transform the world. Our mission is to unite writers and their allies to celebrate creative expression and defend the liberties that make it possible.”
    • Campus Free Speech Guide

 

  • NCAC | https://ncac.org/
    • “NCAC’s mission is to promote freedom of thought, inquiry and expression and oppose censorship in all its forms... NCAC is unique in that we are national in scope, but often local in our approach. We work with community members to resolve censorship controversies without the need for litigation.”

 

  • Speech First | https://speechfirst.org
    • “Speech First will protect students’ free speech rights on campus. Through advocacy, litigation, and education, we will put colleges and universities on notice that shutting down unwanted speech will no longer be tolerated.”

 

  • Chicago Statement
    • The Chicago Statement is a landmark document from the University of Chicago that provided a framework for universities to affirm First Amendment rights and the pursuit of academic freedom.