Deep Dive

A Recent History of Free Speech on College and University Campuses

U.S. campuses have been hotbeds of political and social debate since the colonial era. By the 1960s, rising civil unrest buoyed the Free Speech Movement at the University of California, Berkeley. As protests spread, universities and law enforcement cracked down leading to fatalities in separate incidents at Kent State University and Jackson State University. Today campus protests are once again eliciting an escalated police presence as tensions have risen amid the ongoing Israel-Hamas war. Both public and private universities are struggling with how to balance the free exchange of ideas, but public universities have a legal obligation to protect campus freedom of expression. What does this mean for students, campus free speech and speakers’ right to free speech when it is suppressed by the fear of disruption?

For news, analysis, history and legal background read on.

Updated May 1, 2024.

News & Updates

May 1, 2024: Protesters Clash at UCLA Hours After Police Clear Pro-Palestinian Demonstration at Columbia

Dueling groups of protesters clashed Wednesday at the University of California, Los Angeles, grappling in fistfights and shoving, kicking and using sticks to beat one another. Hours earlier, police burst into a building at Columbia University that pro-Palestinian protesters took over and broke up a demonstration that had paralyzed the school while inspiring others.

After a couple of hours of scuffles between pro-Palestinian and pro-Israeli demonstrators at UCLA, police wearing helmets and face shields formed lines and slowly separated the groups. That quelled the violence, and the scene was calm as day broke.

Tent encampments of protesters calling on universities to stop doing business with Israel or companies that support the war in Gaza have spread across the country in a student movement unlike any other in the 21st century, reaching from New York to Texas and California. The ensuing crackdown by police on some college campuses has stirred echoes of the much larger student protest movement during the Vietnam War era.

There have been confrontations with law enforcement and more than 1,000 arrests. In rarer instances, university officials and protest leaders struck agreements to restrict the disruption to campus life and upcoming commencement ceremonies.

April 30, 2024: Protesters Take Over Columbia University Building in Escalation of Campus Demonstrations

Dozens of protesters took over a building at Columbia University in New York early Tuesday, barricading the entrances and unfurling a Palestinian flag out of a window in the latest escalation of demonstrations against the Israel-Hamas war that have spread to college campuses nationwide.

Protesters on Columbia’s Manhattan campus locked arms in front of Hamilton Hall early Tuesday and carried furniture and metal barricades to the building, one of several that was occupied during a 1968 civil rights and anti-Vietnam War protest, video footage showed. Posts on an Instagram page for protest organizers shortly after midnight urged people to protect the encampment and join them at Hamilton Hall. A “Free Palestine” banner hung from a window.

“An autonomous group reclaimed Hind’s Hall, previously known as ‘Hamilton Hall,’ in honor of Hind Rajab, a martyr murdered at the hands of the genocidal Israeli state at the age of six years old,” CU Apartheid Divest posted on the social media platform X early Tuesday.

April 30, 2024: Israel-Hamas War Protesters and Police Clash on University of Texas Campus

Protesters and police clashed Monday at the University of Texas in a confrontation that resulted in dozens of arrests, and Columbia University began suspending students as colleges around the U.S. begged pro-Palestinian demonstrators to clear out tent encampments as commencement ceremonies approach.

From coast to coast, demonstrators are sparring over the Israel-Hamas war and its mounting death toll, and the number of arrests at campuses nationwide is approaching 1,000 as the final days of class wrap up. The outcry is forcing colleges to reckon with their financial ties to Israel, as well as their support for free speech. Some Jewish students say the protests have veered into antisemitism and made them afraid to set foot on campus.

April 29, 2024: USC Cancels Commencement Amid Protests, Drawing Criticism From Students, Alumni

The University of Southern California’s decision Thursday to cancel its main graduation ceremony, a move that came 10 days after administrators said the student valedictorian who had expressed support for Palestinians would not be allowed to speak, left students and alumni stunned as protests over the Israel-Hamas war continue to spread on campuses nationwide.

“It seems like USC isn’t really listening to their student body,” said Olivia Lee, a 2023 business administration graduate who said she is rethinking whether to recommend the private university to potential students.

Videos of police officers in riot gear facing off, and ultimately arresting, dozens of protesters on campus left her worried about suggesting her alma mater to teenagers who may join similar demonstrations.

“Could that happen to them?” she said.

The protests over the Israel-Hamas conflict pose a tough test for colleges across the country as administrators seek to balance free speech and open debate against pressures over campus safety.

April 29, 2024: College Protesters Want ‘Amnesty.’ At Stake: Tuition, Legal Charges, Grades and Graduation

The students’ plight has become a central part of protests, with students and a growing number of faculty demanding their amnesty. At issue is whether universities and law enforcement will clear the charges and withhold other consequences, or whether the suspensions and legal records will follow students into their adult lives.

What started at Columbia has turned into a nationwide showdown between students and administrators over anti-war protests and the limits of free speech. In the past 10 days, hundreds of students have been arrested, suspended, put on probation and, in rare cases, expelled from colleges including Yale University, the University of Southern California, Vanderbilt University and the University of Minnesota.

April 26, 2024: As Some Universities Negotiate With Pro-Palestinian Protesters, Others Quickly Call the Police

The students at Columbia University who inspired pro-Palestinian demonstrations across the country dug in at their encampment for the 10th day Friday as administrators and police at campuses from California to Massachusetts wrestled with how to address protests that have seen scuffles with police and hundreds of arrests.

Officials at Columbia and some other schools have been negotiating with student protesters who have rebuffed police and doubled down. Other schools have quickly turned to law enforcement to douse demonstrations before they can take hold.

As the death toll mounts in the war in Gaza and the humanitarian crisis worsens, protesters at universities across the country are demanding schools cut financial ties to Israel and divest from companies they say are enabling the conflict. Some Jewish students say the protests have veered into antisemitism and made them afraid to set foot on campus, partly prompting the calls for police intervention.

April 25, 2024: A Look at the Gaza War Protests That Have Emerged on US College Campuses

Student protests over the Israel-Hamas war have popped up at many college campuses following the arrest of demonstrators this month at Columbia University.

The students are calling for universities to separate themselves from companies that are advancing Israel’s military efforts in Gaza, and in some cases from Israel itself. Police have arrested hundreds nationwide since early detainments at Columbia on April 18.

Officials are trying to resolve the protests as the academic year winds down, but students have dug in at several high-profile universities. Standoffs appeared to be coming to a head late Monday and early Tuesday as police cleared encampments and arrested demonstrators at many campuses.

As cease-fire negotiations appear to gain steam, it isn’t clear whether those talks might inspire campus protesters to ease their efforts.

April 24, 2o24: Since Arrests at Columbia, Campus Protests of Israel’s War in Gaza Spread Nationwide

Since Arrests at Columbia, Campus Protests of Israel’s War in Gaza Spread Nationwide

What began last week when Columbia University students refused to end their protest against Israel’s war with Hamas had turned into a much larger movement by Tuesday as students across the nation set up encampments, occupied buildings and ignored demands to leave.

Protests had been bubbling for months but kicked into a higher gear after more than 100 pro-Palestinian demonstrators who had camped out on Columbia’s upper Manhattan campus were arrested Thursday. Dozens more protesters have been arrested at other campuses since, and many now face charges of trespassing or disorderly conduct.

With tensions at Columbia continuing to run high and some students afraid to set foot on the campus, officials said the Ivy League school will switch to hybrid learning for the rest of the semester, which will be finished by the end of next week.

At nearby New York University, police said 133 protesters were taken into custody late Monday and all had been released with summonses to appear in court on disorderly conduct charges. New York City Mayor Eric Adams said police officers were hit with bottles and other objects at some of this week’s protests.

April 23, 2024: Colleges Seek to Balance Safety and Students’ Right to Protest Gaza War

The University of Michigan is informing students of the rules for upcoming graduation ceremonies: Banners and flags are not allowed. Protests are OK but in designated areas away from the cap-and-gown festivities.

The University of Southern California canceled a planned speech by the school’s Muslim valedictorian — and then “released” all its outside commencement speakers. At Columbia University, where more than 100 pro-Palestinian demonstrators were arrested last week, the protests have included a large tent encampment on the Ivy League school’s main lawn, the very place graduating students and families are set to gather next month.

This is commencement season 2024, punctuated by the tension and volatility that has roiled college campuses since Hamas’ deadly Oct. 7 attack on southern Israel. Militants killed about 1,200 people, most of them civilians, and took roughly 250 hostages. In response, Israel has killed more than 34,000 Palestinians in the Gaza Strip, according to the local health ministry.

Since the war began, colleges and universities have struggled to balance campus safety with free speech rights amid intense student debate and protests. Many schools that tolerated protests and other disruptions for months are now doling out more heavy-handed discipline. A series of recent campus crackdowns on student protesters have included suspensions and, in some cases, expulsions.

April 22, 2024: Pro-Palestinian Protests Sweep US College Campuses Following Arrests at Columbia

Columbia canceled in-person classes, dozens of protesters were arrested at Yale and the gates to Harvard Yard were closed to the public on Monday as some of the most prestigious U.S. universities sought to diffuse campus tensions over Israel’s war with Hamas.

The various actions followed the arrest last week of more than 100 pro-Palestinian demonstrators who had camped out on Columbia’s green, as schools struggle with where to draw the line between allowing free expression while maintaining a safe and inclusive campus.

In addition to the demonstrations at the Ivy League schools, pro-Palestinian encampments have sprouted up on other campuses, including at the University of Michigan, New York University, and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology.

The protests have pitted students against one another, with pro-Palestinian students demanding that their schools condemn Israel’s assault on Gaza and divest from companies that sell weapons to Israel. Some Jewish students, meanwhile, say much of the criticism of Israel has veered into antisemitism and made them feel unsafe, and they point out that Hamas is still holding hostages taken during the group’s Oct. 7 invasion.

April 22, 2024: USC ‘Redesigning’ Commencement Amid Campus Controversy Over Israel-Hamas War

The University of Southern California further shook up its commencement plans Friday, announcing the cancelation of a keynote speech by filmmaker Jon M. Chu just days after making the controversial choice to disallow the student valedictorian from speaking.

The private university in Los Angeles on Monday said it was canceling valedictorian Asna Tabassum’s speech at the May 10 ceremony because of safety concerns. Tabassum, who is Muslim, has expressed support for Palestinians in the ongoing Israel-Hamas war, and university officials said the response to her selection as valedictorian had “taken on an alarming tenor.” They did not cite any specific threats.

The university’s decision was met with praise from pro-Israel organizations but condemnation from free speech groups and the Council on American-Islamic Relations. Students and faculty marched across campus Thursday in silent protest of the university’s decision.

Now, university officials say they are “redesigning” the entire commencement program.

April 19, 2024: Police Arrest Dozens of Pro-Palestinian Protesters at Columbia University

New York police removed a pro-Palestinian protest encampment at Columbia University on Thursday and arrested more than 100 demonstrators, including the daughter of a prominent Minnesota congresswoman.

Several students involved in the protest said they also were suspended from Columbia and Barnard College, including Isra Hirsi, who is the daughter of Democratic U.S. Rep. Ilhan Omar.

Omar had questioned Columbia’s president, Nemat Shafik, at a hearing Wednesday in Congress about the school’s targeting of pro-Palestinian protesters.

Police said 108 people, including Hirsi, were charged with trespassing at the private Ivy League institution. Two people were also charged with obstructing government administration.

New York Mayor Eric Adams said the city was asked in writing by university officials to remove the encampment.

“Students have a right to free speech, but do not have a right to violate university policies and disrupt learning on campus,” Adams said.

April 17, 2024: Citing Safety, USC Cancels Speech by Valedictorian Who Supported Palestinians

The University of Southern California canceled a commencement speech by its 2024 valedictorian who has publicly supported Palestinians, citing security concerns, a rare decision that was praised by several pro-Israel groups and lambasted by free speech advocates and the country’s largest Muslim civil rights organization.

Andrew T. Guzman, provost and senior vice president for academic affairs for the private university in Los Angeles, said in a statement Monday that debate over the selection of valedictorian Asna Tabassum to give the May 10 commencement speech took on an “alarming tenor.” Her speaking would have presented “substantial” security risks for the event, which draws 65,000 people to campus, he said.

While Guzman did not specify whether there had been threats, he said that “we cannot ignore the fact that similar risks have led to harassment and even violence at other campuses.”

April 17, 2024: Columbia’s President Testifies Before Congress on Campus Conflicts Over Israel-Hamas War

The president of Columbia University took a firm stand against antisemitism Wednesday as she parried accusations from Republicans who see the New York campus as a hotbed of bias, but she hedged on whether certain phrases invoked by some supporters of Palestinians rise to harassment.

Nemat Shafik had the benefit of hindsight and months of preparation as she faced a congressional hearing on the Ivy League school’s response to antisemitism and conflicts on campus following the Oct. 7 Hamas attack on Israel. She arrived on Capitol Hill four months after a similar hearing that led to the resignations of two Ivy League presidents.

From the start, she took a more decisive stance than the presidents of Harvard and the University of Pennsylvania, who gave lawyerly answers when asked if calls for the genocide of Jews would violate school policies.

When asked the same question, Shafik and three other Columbia leaders responded unequivocally, yes. But Shafik waffled on specific phrases.

April 15, 2024: Some Fear University of Michigan Proposed Policy on Protests Could Quell Free Speech

A University of Michigan proposal aimed at deterring disruptions on its Ann Arbor campus after anti-Israel protesters interrupted an honors convocation is sparking backlash from free speech advocates.

Violations of the policy, which has yet to be implemented, could result in suspension or expulsion for students and termination for university staff.

The March 24 protest by groups calling for the school to divest from companies linked to Israel is among a number of demonstrations on college campuses across the United States in which students and organizations have taken sides — in support of Palestinians or of Israel — as Israel continues its 6-month-long war in Gaza against Hamas.

March 8, 2024: Two Students File Lawsuit Accusing MIT of Allowing Antisemitism on Campus

Two Jewish students filed a federal lawsuit Thursday against the Massachusetts Institute of Technology accusing the university of allowing antisemitism on campus that has resulted in them being intimidated, harassed and assaulted.

The lawsuit mirrors similar legal actions filed since the Oct. 7 Hamas attack on Israel, including at Columbia University, New York University, Harvard University and University of Pennsylvania. In the MIT lawsuit, the students and a nonprofit that fights antisemitism, StandWithUs Center for Legal Justice, accuse the university of approving antisemitic activities on campus and tolerating discrimination and harassment against Jewish students and faculty.

“As a result of MIT’s blatant and intentional disregard for its legal and contractual obligations to its students, plaintiffs and other students have suffered injury to themselves and their educational experience,” the lawsuit alleges. “Jewish and Israeli students at MIT have felt unsafe attending classes, have in some instances deferred graduation dates or exams, and some professors have left the university.”

Feb. 15, 2024: MIT Suspends Student Group That Protested Against Israel’s Military Campaign in Gaza

The president of MIT has suspended a student group that has held demonstrations against Israel’s military campaign in Gaza as protests over the war continue to rattle universities around the country.

In a video statement Tuesday, Sally Kornbluth said the group, Coalition Against Apartheid or CAA, held a demonstration Monday night without going through the university’s permission process required of all groups. The protest was against the Israeli military’s possible ground invasion of Rafah, the city on the southern Gaza border where 1.4 million Palestinians have fled to escape fighting elsewhere in the monthslong war.

As a result, the group received a letter Tuesday advising that its privileges as a student group would be suspended. It will not get any kind of funding that student group’s normally get nor will it be able to use MIT facilities nor hold any demonstrations on campus.

“I want to be clear: suspending the CAA is not related to the content of their speech,” Kornbluth said.

Jan. 22, 2024: Harvard Creates Task Forces on Antisemitism and Islamophobia

Harvard University, struggling to manage its campus response to the Israel-Hamas war, announced task forces on Friday to combat antisemitism and Islamophobia.

“Reports of antisemitic and Islamophobic acts on our campus have grown, and the sense of belonging among these groups has been undermined,” Alan Garber, Harvard’s interim president, said in a letter to the school community. “We need to understand why and how that is happening — and what more we might do to prevent it.”

Jan. 16, 2024: FIRE’s Will Creeley on Campus Speech Controversies Amid Israel-Hamas War

Since the beginning of the Israel-Hamas war on Oct. 7, colleges and universities across the country have been embroiled in conflict, with demonstrations from pro-Palestinian and pro-Israeli groups bringing tensions on campus to new heights. Some school leaders have been accused of failing to adequately protect their students from bigotry, highlighting conflicts between free speech principles and university codes of conduct.

Following a December congressional hearing, the presidents of Harvard University, the University of Pennsylvania and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology faced national backlash over their testimonies, in which they did not unequivocally state whether calls for the genocide of Jews would violate their universities’ codes of conduct. UPenn President Liz Magill resigned days after her testimony. Harvard President Claudine Gay also ultimately resigned from her post, after the controversy brought increased scrutiny to her academic record and accusations of plagiarism.

In an interview with First Amendment Watch, First Amendment expert Will Creeley, legal director at the Foundation for Individual Rights and Expression (FIRE), discussed the issues of law and ethics behind the controversy, outlined where the lines around protected speech on campus should be drawn, and argued that pushing unpopular or offensive speech underground could cause more harm than good.

Jan. 16, 2024: Tension Between Free Speech and Inclusivity on College Campuses Simmers

Generations of Americans have held firm to a version of free speech that makes room for even the vilest of views. It’s girded by a belief that the good ideas rise above the bad, that no one should be punished for voicing an idea — except in rare cases where the idea could lead directly to illegal action.

Today, that idea faces competition more forceful and vehement than it has seen for a century.

On college campuses, a newer version of free speech is emerging as young generations redraw the line where expression crosses into harm. There’s a wave of students who have no tolerance for speech that marginalizes. They draw lines around language that leads to damage, either psychological or physical. Their judgments weigh the Constitution but also incorporate histories of privilege and oppression.

Jan. 16, 2024: Lawsuit Filed Against Harvard, Accusing It of Violating the Civil Rights of Jewish Students

Several Jewish students have filed a lawsuit against Harvard University, accusing it of becoming “a bastion of rampant anti-Jewish hatred and harassment.”

The lawsuit filed Wednesday mirrors others filed since the Oct. 7 Hamas attack on Israel, including against The Art Institute of Chicago, New York University and the University of Pennsylvania.

In the Harvard lawsuit, the plaintiffs include members of the Students Against Antisemitism, Inc. They accuse Harvard of violating Jewish students’ civil rights and allege that the university tolerated Jewish students being harassed, assaulted and intimidated — behavior that has intensified since the Oct. 7 attack.

Jan. 2, 2024: Harvard President Resigns Amid Plagiarism Claims, Antisemitism Testimony Backlash

Harvard University President Claudine Gay resigned Tuesday amid plagiarism accusations and criticism over testimony at a congressional hearing where she was unable to say unequivocally that calls on campus for the genocide of Jews would violate the school’s conduct policy.

Gay is the second Ivy League president to resign in the past month following the congressional testimony. Gay, Harvard’s first Black president, announced her departure just months into her tenure in a letter to the Harvard community.

Following the congressional hearing, Gay’s academic career came under intense scrutiny by conservative activists who unearthed several instances of alleged plagiarism in her 1997 doctoral dissertation. Harvard’s governing board initially rallied behind Gay, saying a review of her scholarly work turned up “a few instances of inadequate citation” but no evidence of research misconduct.

Dec. 13, 2023: Harvard Board Keeps President as Leader of School Following Antisemitism Backlash

Harvard President Claudine Gay will remain leader of the prestigious Ivy League school following her comments last week at a congressional hearing on antisemitism, the university’s highest governing body announced Tuesday.

“Our extensive deliberations affirm our confidence that President Gay is the right leader to help our community heal and to address the very serious societal issues we are facing,” the Harvard Corporation said in a statement following its meeting Monday.

Dec. 11, 2023: UPenn President, Board Chair Resign as Antisemitism Testimony Draws Backlash

The University of Pennsylvania’s president has resigned amid pressure from donors and criticism over testimony at a congressional hearing where she was unable to say under repeated questioning that calls on campus for the genocide of Jews would violate the school’s conduct policy.

The chairman of the Ivy League school’s board of trustees, Scott Bok, also resigned immediately during a trustees meeting Saturday evening, just hours after Bok announced Liz Magill’s departure as president in just her second year.

Bok, a supporter of Magill’s, defended her through several months of criticism over the university’s handling of various perceived acts of antisemitism.

Dec. 8, 2023: Harvard President Apologizes for Remarks on Antisemitism As Pressure Mounts

Harvard University’s president apologized as pressure mounted for the University of Pennsylvania’s president to resign over their testimony at a congressional hearing on antisemitism that critics from the White House on down say failed to show that they would stand up to antisemitism on campus.

In an interview Thursday with The Crimson student newspaper, Harvard President Claudine Gay said she got caught up in a heated exchange at the House committee hearing and failed to properly denounce threats of violence against Jewish students.

Dec. 7, 2023: Ivy League Presidents Reckon With Swift Backlash to Remarks on Campus Antisemitism

Facing heavy criticism, the University of Pennsylvania’s president walked back some of her remarks given earlier this week at a congressional hearing on campus antisemitism, saying she should have gone further to condemn hate against Jewish students.

Penn President Liz Magill was grilled during a five-hour hearing Tuesday, along with Harvard President Claudine Gay and MIT President Sally Kornbluth, on how their institutions had responded to instances of antisemitism on campuses. Their carefully worded responses faced swift backlash from Republican and some Democratic lawmakers as well as the White House.

Dec. 5, 2023: Harvard, MIT, Penn Presidents Defend Actions in Combatting Antisemitism on Campus

The presidents of Harvard, the University of Pennsylvania and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology said Tuesday that they were taking steps to combat antisemitism on campus since the start of the Israel-Hamas war, including increasing security and providing additional counseling and mental health support.

In testimony before a House committee, the university leaders said there was a fine line between protecting free speech and allowing protests, while also combatting antisemitism.

“Harvard must provide firm leadership in the fight against antisemitism and hate speech even while preserving room for free expression and dissent. This is difficult work, and I admit that we have not always gotten it right,” said Claudine Gay, of Harvard. “As Harvard’s president, I am personally responsible for confronting antisemitism with the urgency it demands.”

Gay, Liz Magill of Penn and Sally Kornbluth of MIT disavowed antisemitism and Islamophobia on their campuses, acknowledging that instances of both had taken place since the Oct. 7 Hamas attack on Israel.

Nov. 21, 2023: Florida Faces a Second Lawsuit Over Its Effort To Disband Pro-Palestinian Student Groups

A second federal lawsuit filed against Florida over its effort to disband pro-Palestinian student groups claims the state is either ignoring or doesn’t understand First Amendment rights to free speech.

The Council on American-Islamic Relations is representing the University of South Florida chapter of Students for Justice in Palestine, claiming state university system Chancellor Ray Rodrigues’ order to disband the groups because of a statement made by a national group is unconstitutional.

“Neither the state of Florida nor its state colleges and universities are enclaves immune from the requirements and protections of the First Amendment,” the suit filed Tuesday reads. “But once again events suggest that Defendants either don’t know that or reject it.”

Nov. 13, 2023: Florida Pauses Plan to Disband Pro-Palestinian Student Groups

A plan to prohibit a pro-Palestinian student group from state university campuses in Florida has been temporarily shelved while officials reassess the proposal.

State University System Chancellor Ray Rodrigues said Thursday that campus groups at the University of Florida and the University of South Florida thought to be chapters of Students for Justice in Palestine are actually “not chartered or under the headship” of the national organization, The Tampa Bay Times reported.

Rodrigues, working with Gov. Ron DeSantis, had targeted student groups, saying that their affiliation with the group aligned them with Hamas attacks on Israel. But both universities have since obtained legal opinions raising concerns about “potential personal liability for university actors” who were tasked with disbanding the groups, Rodrigues said.

Now, Rodrigues said he is seeking outside legal advice and working with the universities to elicit statements from the student groups in an effort to affirm that the groups “reject violence,” “reject that they are part of the Hamas movement,” and pledge “that they will follow the law.”

Nov. 10, 2023: Clashes Over Israel-Hamas War Shatter Sense of Safety on US College Campuses

On campuses around the U.S., students on both sides say they have been subjected to taunts and rhetoric that oppose their very existence since the invasion and the subsequent Israeli assault on Hamas in northern Gaza.

They see it in campus rallies, on anonymous message boards frequented by college students, and on graffiti scrawled on dorms and buildings. In one case under police investigation as a possible hate crime, “Free Palestine” was found written this week on a window of Boston University’s Hillel center.

Colleges have been scrambling to restore a sense of security for Jewish and Arab students — and stressing messages of inclusion for diverse student bodies. But untangling what’s protected as political speech and what crosses into threatening language can be a daunting task.

Nov. 8, 2023: Biden Admin Says Colleges Must Fight ‘Alarming Rise’ in Antisemitism, Islamophobia

The Biden administration is warning U.S. schools and colleges that they must take immediate action to stop antisemitism and Islamophobia on their campuses, citing an “alarming rise” in threats and harassment.

In a Tuesday letter, the Education Department said there’s “renewed urgency” to fight discrimination against students during the Israel-Hamas war. The letter reminds schools of their legal duty to protect students and intervene to stop harassment that disrupts their education.

“The rise of reports of hate incidents on our college campuses in the wake of the Israel-Hamas conflict is deeply traumatic for students and should be alarming to all Americans,” Education Secretary Miguel Cardona said in a statement. “Antisemitism, Islamophobia and all other forms of hatred go against everything we stand for as a nation.”

Nov. 1, 2023: Antisemitism Policies at New York’s Public City Colleges Will Be Reviewed, Governor Says

An independent party will review antisemitism policies at the City University of New York, the nation’s largest urban public university system, Gov. Kathy Hochul announced Tuesday, as protests about the war between Israel and Hamas roil college campuses across the country.

Hochul, a Democrat, said the review will assess how the college system handles antisemitism complaints and will make recommendations on how administrators can better protect Jewish students and faculty. It will be conducted by Jonathan Lippman, a former chief judge of New York’s highest court.

Oct. 26, 2023: Florida Orders State Universities to Disband Pro-Palestinian Student Group

Republican Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis’s administration is taking the extraordinary step of ordering state universities to ban a pro-Palestinian student organization from campuses, saying it illegally backs Hamas militants who attacked Israel earlier this month.

As Israel’s attacks on Gaza have intensified, some college students have expressed solidarity with Palestinians, resulting in swift censure from some Jewish academics and even some prospective employers. But Florida has gone further, saying Students for Justice in Palestine is supporting a “terrorist organization.”

Oct. 16, 2023: Israel-Hamas War Sparks Tension, Anguish on US College Campuses

America’s colleges aspire to be places where ideas meet and common ground emerges. As the death toll rises in the Israel-Hamas war, they have become seats of anguish.

Many Jewish students and their allies, some with family and friends in Israel, have demanded bold reckonings and strong condemnation after the attacks by Hamas militants, who stormed from the blockaded Gaza Strip into nearby Israeli towns, killing and abducting civilians and soldiers.

Meanwhile, some Muslim students have joined with allies to call for a recognition of decades of suffering by Palestinians in Gaza, plus condemnation of the response by Israel. After the Hamas attack, Israel launched a total blockade of Gaza; airstrikes have flattened buildings and homes, killing civilians and forcing hundreds of thousands to evacuate.

On many campuses, these students agree on one thing: Their colleges, which are increasingly staking out positions of neutrality, have not done enough to support them.

College officials, already under pressure to allow conservative opinions on campus, have been trying to preserve free speech and open debate. But the conflict has presented an excruciating challenge.

Jan. 18, 2023: DeSantis Didn’t Violate Court Order Blocking ‘Stop WOKE’ Act, Federal Judge Rules

A federal judge ruled Jan. 12 that Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis’ administration did not violate an order blocking the academic provision of the “Stop WOKE” Act, which restricts race-based discussions in higher education classrooms.

In November, Chief U.S. District Judge Mark Walker issued a preliminary injunction blocking the provision of the “Stop Wrongs Against Our Kids and Employees” Act, or the “Stop WOKE” Act, calling it “positively dystopian.” He previously declared the employment provision of the act unconstitutional.

On Dec. 28, Chris Spencer, director of DeSantis’ Office of Policy and Budget, sent a memo to state Education Commissioner Manny Diaz Jr. and state university system Chancellor Ray Rodrigues requesting information “regarding the expenditure of state resources on programs and initiatives related to diversity, equity and inclusion, and critical race theory within our state colleges and universities.”

According to the memo, the requested information would provide legislators the information they need to prepare future budget and policy proposals because “it is important that we have a full understanding of the operational expense of state institutions.” Spencer gave a Jan.13 deadline.

Six professors and a student who originally challenged the Stop WOKE Act filed a motion Jan. 11 to compel compliance with the preliminary injunction, arguing that the information the memo requests is an attempt to subvert Judge Walker’s blocking of the law.

But, Judge Walker ruled in favor of DeSantis’ administration Jan. 12. “Although this court would not hesitate to compel compliance with its preliminary injunction, this court finds there has been no violation of the injunction at this time,” he wrote.





Nov. 17, 2022: Federal Judge Blocks DeSantis’ ‘Stop WOKE’ Act, Says It’s ‘Positively Dystopian’

Chief U.S. District Judge Mark Walker blocked a key provision of Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis’ “Stop WOKE” Act, citing First Amendment violations of viewpoint discrimination after Florida claimed that public university professors were bound by state-sanctioned speech.

The “Stop Wrongs Against Our Kids and Employees” Act, coined the “Stop WOKE” Act by DeSantis, went into effect July 1. The academic provision of the law sought to bar certain discussions in public university and college classrooms, specifically those centered around racism and gender, according to an Aug. 18 complaint filed by the American Civil Liberties Union, (ACLU), the ACLU of Florida and the NAACP Legal Defense Fund on behalf of seven professors and a student.

Judge Walker’s preliminary injunction immediately blocks any attempts to enforce the act in higher education environments. He also previously declared the act’s employment provision unconstitutional in August.

“The law officially bans professors from expressing disfavored viewpoints in university classrooms while permitting unfettered expression of the opposite viewpoints,” wrote Judge Walker in the 139-page order filed in the U.S. District Court for the Northern District of Florida. “Defendants argue that, under this Act, professors enjoy ‘academic freedom’ so long as they express only those viewpoints of which the State approves. This is positively dystopian. It should go without saying that ‘[i]f liberty means anything at all it means the right to tell people what they do not want to hear.”


Oct. 27, 2022: Florida’s ‘Stop WOKE’ Act and the Outrage of Public University Professors

Florida’s “Stop WOKE” Act has ignited fear and outrage from public university educators as a federal judge decides whether to issue a preliminary injunction to block the law’s academic provision which would restrict gender and race-centric discussions and teachings in the classroom.

The “Stop Wrongs Against Our Kids and Employees” Act, coined “Stop WOKE” Act by Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis, went into effect July 1. The restricted classroom discussions can be centered around civil rights, “privilege,” “oppression,” and “systemic racism,” according to a complaint against the act filed by the American Civil Liberties Union, (ACLU), the ACLU of Florida and the NAACP Legal Defense Fund Aug. 18.

According to Andrew Gothard, president of United Faculty of Florida, (UFF), a union of more than 25,000 faculty members in all levels of education across the state, “there’s a lot of fear among faculty right now, but there’s also a lot of desire to fight and that’s what we’re doing at UFF.”

“I do feel confident saying that the entire higher education community is up in arms about this,” he added.




Sept. 27, 2022: Texas University Professor Receives $165K Settlement After Free Speech Lawsuit

A math professor at the University of North Texas, was awarded $165,000 in damages and attorney’s fees Sept. 22 after settling a lawsuit against the university for violating his right to free speech.

Dr. Nathaniel Hiers sued the university for infringing on his right to free speech by discriminating against his viewpoint, placing unconstitutional conditions on his employment, and attempting to compel and retaliate against his speech, according to the lawsuit filed April 2020 in the United States District Court in the Eastern District of Texas. In the court’s opinion, the judge posed the free speech issue as, “What can a public employee say, and what can he choose not to say, without fear of reprisal from his employer?”

Hiers taught multiple undergraduate courses in the University of North Texas, (UNT), College of Science Department of Mathematics since 2013 while completing the university’s doctoral program. After receiving his doctoral degree, UNT offered Hiers an adjunct faculty position slated to begin in the fall of 2019. But, after writing an unsigned message on a faculty lounge chalkboard during that first semester, Hiers was fired.



Sept. 20, 2022: Utah Professor Sues University Over Required Pronoun Use, Argues Free Speech Infringement

A professor at Southern Utah University filed a lawsuit against the university, stating it violated his right to free speech by sanctioning him for refusing to use students’ preferred pronouns.

Richard Bugg, a theater professor at Southern Utah University, (SUU), filed the lawsuit in the United States District Court for the District of Utah Aug. 31. Bugg, represented by attorneys Jerry Mooney and Randall Garrou with financial support from the Faculty Legal Defense Fund of the Foundation for Individual Rights and Expression, (FIRE),  argues that he is “opposed to the coercion of speech that is taking place on our campus and on most campuses,” the lawsuit stated.



Jan. 19, 2022: Professor at a Public University Suspended for Profanity-Laden Video Sues for Free Speech Violations

On Jan. 26, Professor Mehler sued Ferris State University for violating his First Amendment rights. In a suit filed in the U.S. District Court for the District of Western Michigan, it says that over the past two decades Mehler has developed “‘The Show,’ a performance that includes strong themes, colorful language, and modern cultural references, to capture student’s attention and challenge them to think critically.”

The complaint argues that Mehler’s colorful teaching style is well known, and that his statements in the video criticizing the university’s COVID-19 protocols—the school doesn’t require students to be vaccinated—aren’t grounds for suspension.

The lawsuit is seeking to have the suspension lifted and allow Mehler to immediately resume teaching for the Spring 2022 semester.


Oct. 20, 2021: ACLU Sues Oklahoma Over Its Critical Race Theory Ban

The ACLU and other civil rights organizations are suing the state of Oklahoma over a law that prohibits certain types of instruction around race and gender.

Filed on October 19 in the U.S. District Court for the Western District of Oklahoma against the state’s governor, attorney general, and more than a dozen top education officials, the suit alleges that the law violates students’ and educators’ First and 14th Amendment rights.

HB 1775, which took effect in July, “severely restricts discussions on race and gender in Oklahoma’s elementary, secondary, and higher education schools without any legitimate pedagogical justification, using language that is simultaneously sweeping and unclear,” the suit alleges.


Aug. 4, 2021: Iowa State University Warns Professors Against Teaching Critical Race Theory in the Classroom

Professors at Iowa State University (ISU), a public university in central Iowa, will not be allowed to teach certain “defined concepts” to students in required classes, even if the concept is germane to the course’s subject matter.

The policy was announced this summer in response to a new state law, HB802, which prohibits public schools from implementing mandatory “race and sex stereotyping” training that incorporates  “defined concepts,” such as ideas that “the United States of America and the state of Iowa are fundamentally or systemically racist or sexist,” or “that an individual, by virtue or the individual or sex, bears responsibility for actions committed in the past by other members of the same race or sex.”  More than a dozen other states including New Hampshire and Missouri have also passed bills that limit how public schools can talk about racism and sexism.


April 15, 2021: Free Speech Groups Call on USD to End Investigation of Law Professor

A professor at University of San Diego School of Law is being investigated for a blog post he wrote criticizing the Chinese government.

In the post, published on March 10th, Professor Tom Smith shared an excerpt from a Wall Street Journal op-ed that called attention to Chinese government’s efforts to control the narrative about the origins of the coronavirus.

“If you believe that the coronavirus did not escape from the lab in Wuhan, you have to at least consider that you are an idiot who is swallowing whole a lot of Chinese cock swaddle,” Smith wrote.

The blog post triggered a formal complaint filed by the Asian Pacific American Law Student Association calling for Smith’s termination. The group had interpreted Smith’s post as an attack on Chinese people, and claimed that his language should be categorized as harassment.

Smith later added language to his post clarifying that it was meant as a criticism of the Chinese government and not the Chinese people.

“UPDATE: It appears that some people are interpreting my reference to ‘Chinese cock swaddle,’ as referent to an ethnic group. That is misinterpretation. To be clear, I was referring to the Chinese government,” the amended post now states.

On March 17, USD Law Dean Robert Shapiro sent an email to the law school community announcing an investigation into Smith’s language, and stating that university policies “specifically prohibit harassment, including the use of epithets, derogatory comments, or slurs based on race or national origin, among other categories.”

The law school also issued the following official statement:

“The University of San Diego School of Law is aware of the blog post of the faculty member.

While the blog is not hosted by the University of San Diego, these forms of bias, wherever they occur, have an adverse impact on our community. It is especially concerning when the disparaging language comes from a member of our community. A core value of the University of San Diego School of Law is that all members of the community must be treated with dignity and respect. University policies specifically prohibit harassment, including the use of epithets, derogatory comments, or slurs based on race or national origin, among other categories.

We have received formal complaints relating to the faculty member’s conduct, and in accordance with university procedures, there will be a process to review whether university or law school policies have been violated,” the statement read.

Multiple free speech groups have sent letters to Dean Shapiro asking him to drop the investigation into Smith. Although USD is a private institution and not bound by the First Amendment, it has made formal commitments to respecting its faculty members’ academic freedom. For example, USD’s policy manual adopts the American Association of University Professors’ 1940 Statement on Academic Freedom which ensures professors the right to engage in extramural speech without fear of institutional censorship or discipline.

The Foundation for Individual Rights in Education (FIRE) has sent various letters warning that an investigation could have a chilling effect on speech even if the school ultimately decides not to punish Smith.

The Academic Freedom Alliance, an alliance of college and university faculty members who advocate for academic freedom, also spoke out against USD’s investigation.

“This investigation is a clear threat to Professor Smith’s academic freedom. Blog posts are a form of what the American Association of University Professors calls ‘extramural speech.’Extramural speech is a protected form of academic freedom. When professors speak or write as citizens, they should be free from institutional censorship of discipline,” the organization said in a statement.

March 19, 2021: New Case Tests Bounds of Professor’s Classroom Speech Rights

A lawsuit filed by a professor at a small public college in Ohio highlights tensions between an educator’s free speech rights and a student’s right to be free from a hostile learning environment.

Nicholas Meriwether, a political philosophy professor at Shawnee State University, sued the institution after he was investigated for refusing to refer to a student by her preferred gender pronouns. The professor claims that doing so would go against his religious beliefs, and sued the school on First Amendment grounds.

The complaint was dismissed by United Magistrate Judge Karen Litkovitz in 2019 and again by the United States District Court for the Southern District of Ohio in 2020. But on March 26, a three-judge panel on the United States Court of Appeals for the Sixth Circuit revived the lawsuit.


Feb. 5, 2021: Student Sues University of Tennessee for Violating Her Free Speech Rights

On Feb. 3, a University of Tennessee student sued the school for violating her First Amendment right to free speech.

Filed in the U.S. District  Court for the Western District of Tennessee Western Division, Kimberly Diei says that she was nearly expelled from the university’s graduate pharmacy program for her social media posts.

The complaint, filed on her behalf by the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education (FIRE), said that Diei’s personal social media accounts were investigated twice by university officials who concluded that some of her posts were “too crude,” “vulgar” or “sexual,” and as such, violated the university’s professionalism policies.

According to the complaint, Diei, who posted on Twitter and Instagram under the pseudonym, “KimmyKasi”, enjoys “commenting on topics of interest to her and other young, black social media users, occasionally using profanity and freely expressing her views on sexuality. None of her posts identify her as a College of Pharmacy student or indicate any affiliation with the University of Tennessee.”

In September 2019, Diei was called to appear before the college’s Professional Conduct Committee after school administrators received an anonymous complaint about her posts. The committee determined that her posts violated the university’s policies, and required Diei to write a letter reflecting on her behavior.

Less than a year later, school officials said they were investigating Diei’s social media accounts again after receiving another anonymous complaint about her Twitter and Instagram posts, including one where she suggested raunchy new lyrics for a Cardi B. and Megan Thee Stallion song. On Sept. 1, 2020, the committee unanimously decided to expel Diei from the pharmacy program. She appealed to the Dean, who reversed the decision one month later after FIRE intervened on Diei’s behalf.

Despite the reversal, Diei is suing the school because she is afraid she’ll be punished again if she continues to post on social media. “Because of the vague, subjective standards employed by university officials during this shocking ordeal, Diei fears that participating in everyday discussions online may again put her doctoral degree at risk,” reads the complaint.

In a statement posted on FIRE’s site, Diei’s attorney, Greg Greubel, says that as a public institution that is bound by the Constitution, the University of Tennessee can’t censor a student’s protected speech. “The First Amendment protects the right of students to suggest lyrics for a Cardi B remix on Twitter and Instagram. Period,” said the FIRE attorney.

The suit is asking the school to halt any further investigations into Diei’s social media activities, eliminate the school’s overly broad professionalism policies, and award monetary damages to Diei for violating her free speech and due process rights.


Aug. 3, 2018: Data Suggests Campus Free Speech Crisis is Over-exaggerated

Data analysis from Georgetown’s Free Speech Project suggests that a free speech crisis on college campuses is not as dire as many claim. The project found roughly 90 incidents since 2016 in which a person’s free speech rights were threatened according to their criteria, of which two-thirds of the cases took place on college campuses. They also found that most of the incidents involving speakers on campus involved a handful of the same individuals, and found instances in which left-wing speech was shut down as well.


Sanford Unger directs the Knight Foundation-funded Free Speech Project at Georgetown and writes on findings of the recently released report on the state of free speech on college campuses.

June 24, 2018: University of West Florida Updates Its Speech Policy After Governor Signs Law

The University of West Florida has eliminated its “free speech zones,” which were specific areas on campus where free speech was confined to. Students at the public university will now be able to exercise their right to free speech throughout campus with some time, place, and manner restrictions.

Washington Examiner

June 12, 2018: Campus Free Speech Legislation Signed By Louisiana Governor To Protect Controversial Speakers

A new law aimed at protecting controversial speakers visiting Louisiana colleges was signed by Governor John Bel Edwards and has taken immediate effect.

Under Senate Bill 364, now Act 666, colleges and universities will be required to spell out speech policies and advertise them in student handbooks and on websites. In conjunction with the Board of Regents, schools must develop policies that say that students and faculty may discuss any topic and assemble as long as it is legal and non-disruptive of school functions. Additionally, schools must indicate that they will strive to ensure the fullest degree of intellectual freedom and free expression and that it is not the role of the institution to shield individuals form protected speech under the First Amendment.

Associated Press The Advocate Act 666
June 11, 2018: Feds File “Statement Of Interest” In Case Arguing UM’s Speech Codes Are Unconstitutional

The Department of Justice filed a “Statement of Interest” in a case between D.C.-based civil rights liberties group Speech First and University of Michigan’s President Mark Schlissel over the school’s speech code and anti-bullying policy.

On the same day, UM announced that it revised its policy.

Speech First alleges that the university’s policy is too broad and violates the First Amendment because it may cause students to censor their speech. The DOJ’s Statement of Interest argues that UM’s code of conduct is unconstitutional and “chills” protected speech.

“In recent years, many institutions of higher education have failed to uphold these freedoms, and free speech has come under attack on campuses across the country,” the Statement of Interest read. “Such failure is of grave concern because freedom of expression is ‘vital’ on campuses.”

Acting Associate Attorney General Jesse Pannuccio said in a statement:

“Freedom of speech and expression on the American campus are under attack. This Justice Department, under the leadership of Attorney General Jeff Sessions, is committed to promoting and defending Americans’ first freedom at public universities.”

A university spokesperson says that the lawsuit paints a “false portrait of speech” on campus by misstating UM’s policy. The spokesperson said that the Bias Response Team, which the DOJ claimed were bestowed with disciplinary power, do not in fact have that authority. Rather, the team supports students on a voluntary basis.

The DOJ notes that this case is the fourth Statement of Interest filed in a First Amendment case under Attorney General Jeff Sessions.

This isn’t the first time University of Michigan has been challenged over their speech code. A court ruled against UM in 1989 over the adoption of a speech code. A student filed a suit against the university because he alleged that the speech code, amended to the school’s policy as a response to hate speech, prevented him from having conversations about race and gender. The district court ruled in favor of the student and against UM on the grounds that the policy was vague and too broad.

Detroit Free Press The Detroit News Chronicle of Higher Education Inside Higher Ed U.S. Department of Justice Press Release U.S. Government’s Statement of Interest Doe v. University of Michigan
May 14, 2018: A twenty-minute on campus protest at U. of Nebraska-Lincoln resulted in a drawn-out discord between powerful state institutions

In a collaborative reporting project, This American Life and The Chronicle of Higher Education followed a schism between lawmakers and a public university over what kinds of free speech should be tolerated on campus. A graduate student and member of the school’s English department confronted a student tabling for a conservative campus group and handing out political paraphernalia by calling her names and giving her the finger. The brawl, caught on video and widely publicized, resulted in the graduate student being removed from her teaching duties and Nebraska lawmakers turning critical of the school’s political climate. State legislators introduced a free-speech bill, while the university announced a new policy that made the motto “Nebraska Nice” a condition for free speech on its campuses. Chronicle of Higher Education reporter Steve Kolwich writes, “it was less about free speech than how to use free speech to get what you want.”

Associated Press The Chronicle of Higher Education This American Life
March 12, 2018: Can a New Generation Redefine the Meaning of the First Amendment?

Gallup, the Knight Foundation, the American Council on Education, Charles Koch Institute and the Stanton Foundation worked together to update a 2016 landmark survey of college students and their thoughts on their First Amendment freedoms. Topics included: “whether college students ever consider violence or shouting down speakers acceptable, whether they believe certain groups of students can freely express their views on campus and whether social media has displaced public areas of campus as the venue for discussing political and social issues.” The results show shifting attitudes to freedoms protected by the First Amendment.

Washington Post Medium Knight Foundation Report Gallup Poll
March 8, 2018: Ballard Spahr Discusses Freedom of Expression in Higher Ed

Ballard Spahr outlines what it sees as the critical issues in campus speech today.

Ballard Spahr
Jan. 25, 2018: Update on Free Speech Lawsuit Against Berkeley

The Justice Department filed a statement of interest in support of two conservative groups suing Berkeley on First Amendment grounds, stating that their rights were violated when conservative speakers appearances were cancelled. According to a Justice Department spokesperson the decision was based on the need “to protect against universities — the government really, if you’re a public university — deciding which speech is favored, which ideas are too controversial to even allow to be heard on a college campus.”

Washington Post
Jan. 21, 2018: Waiting for the Next Campus Speech Controversy

CBS News documents the current state of campus protests.

CBS News

Nov. 5, 2017: Virginia Tech Grapples With Meaning of Student Free Speech

Graduate student Mark Daniel Neuhoff posted alleged racist comments on what he thought was a private forum. An undergraduate, Tori Coan, got wind of his statements and led a petition to fire him from his teaching assistant position. Coan and other student protesters even disrupted the “State of the University” speech delivered by Virginia Tech’s president. Now the campus is divided over whose free speech and privacy was violated.

Washington Post

Oct. 19, 2017: Protests Erupt at Richard Spencer Speech at University of Florida

Taking a cue from clashes at other college campuses, including Berkeley, over controversial speakers, the Governor of Florida declared a state of emergency ahead of white nationalist Richard Spencer’s speech at Gainesville. The Miami Herald gives a play by play of the day.

Miami Herald

Sept. 26, 2017: Attorney General Sessions Says Freedom of Speech Under Attack on College Campuses

At an invitation-only event at Georgetown University law school, Attorney General Jeff Sessions jumped into the debate over campus speech by stating that the First Amendment had suffered from “political correctness and homogeneous thought” and that “a national recommitment to free speech on campus” was needed. He challenged the audience to think about who decides what can be deemed offensive or acceptable stating, “The university is about the search for truth, not the imposition of truth by a government censor.” Protestors rallied outside with signs reading, “FREE SPEECH IS NOT HATE SPEECH.”

New York Times Washington Post
Sept.22, 2017: What Berkeley Student Say About Campus Free Speech

The New York Times excerpts students comments on free speech.

The New York Times
Sept. 18, 2017: First Amendment on Shaky Ground on College Campuses

In a recent Brookings survey of current undergraduate students at U.S. four-year colleges and universities, researchers found that “Freedom of expression is deeply imperiled on U.S. campuses.” Regarding the recent protests over controversial campus speakers, the survey indicated “a very significant fraction of students, across all categories, believe it is acceptable to silence (by shouting) a speaker they find offensive.” This reflects back on a weak understanding of First Amendment protections. What is to be done? John Villasenor, Nonresident Senior Fellow of Governance Studies, Center for Technology Innovation at Brookings writes, “we can do a better job of giving [students] a fuller explanation of the scope of the First Amendment, and the fact that it protects the expression of offensive views.”

Brookings Washington Post
September 12, 2017: Free Speech Week Expected to Test Berkeley

Last spring, Ann Coulter’s speech at Berkeley was cancelled after concerns that protests would erupt into violence. She plans her return at Berkeley’s “Free Speech” week along with Brietbart editor Steve Bannon and conservative provocateur Milo Yiannopoulos.

September 10, 2017: Pepper Spray and Free Speech

As a new semester gets under way at Berkeley, free speech debates and protests that boiled over earlier in the year are expected to continue. This time, ex-Breitbart editor, Ben Shapiro, is causing a stir and Berkeley police are asking to arm themselves with pepper spray to control crowds. “Berkeley has been the focus of an unprecedented effort to be made a battleground for extremist groups,” wrote Police Chief Andrew Greenwood in a memo to the City Council stating police need help to ensure First Amendment rights are protected. “The availability of pepper spray as a force option to use against specific violent offenders in a crowd situation would allow for more safety for officers and the public, and increase the likelihood of apprehension and criminal prosecution of suspects, while reducing the potential for injuries to suspects and officers.”

Sept. 11, 2017: UC Berkeley Faculty Dispute Protection of Hate Speech

As Berkeley prepares for more controversial speaker visit and further free speech challenges, faculty disagreed on limiting hate speech in a recent panel. “All ideas and views can be expressed on campus, no matter how offensive,” said Erwin Chemerinsky, dean of the UC Berkeley School of Law and an expert on constitutional law. John Powell, director of the Haas Institute for a Fair and Inclusive Society, expressed an opposite viewpoint, “I don’t think (free speech) is a defining issue in the country. I think the defining issue in the country is white supremacy.”

The Daily Californian

June 20, 2017: Free Speech on College Campuses in the Senate Spotlight

U.S. Senators questioned First Amendment lawyers, university administrators and college students at a Judiciary Committee hearing on campus speech in June. The Committee’s Republican members expressed significant concerns about the cancellation of multiple provocative speakers at public universities across the country, with Chairman Chuck Grassley saying that free speech seems to have been “sacrificed at the altar of political correctness.”

ABC News

June 26, 2017: Wisconsin State Assembly Supports Campus Free Speech Act

The Wisconsin State Assembly sent to the State Senate last week the Campus Free Speech Act, legislation which would institute severe penalties — including suspension or explosion — for University of Wisconsin students who engage in “violent, abusive, indecent, profane, boisterous, obscene, unreasonably loud or other disorderly conduct that interferes with the free speech of others.” In an interview on NPR’s “All Things Considered,” the bill’s Republican sponsor said that his legislation was intended to provide “a basic framework that protects the constitutional rights of everyone on the campus.” Governor Scott Walker is expected to sign the legislation once it is passed by the State Senate.

April 26, 2017: North Carolina Legislators Take Pro Speech Hardline on Campus

In April, the North Carolina House of Representatives passed H.B. 527, legislation which would mandate that public universities take disciplinary action against students “who disrupt events or interfere with others’ free speech rights.” The bill would also obligate the UNC Board of Governors to form a Committee on Free Expression, which would make recommendations on how state schools could remove barriers to free speech on their campuses.

News Observer
April 26, 2017: Berkeley Offers, Coulter Rejects Alternative Dates for Cancelled Speech

The University of California at Berkeley offered alternative dates for an event featuring Ann Coulter, after canceling the initial event due to concerns about safety. Coulter rejected the alternative dates, after the conservative groups sponsoring the event pulled out. They blamed Berkeley for failing to provide adequate security.

April 24, 2017: Conservatives Sue Berkeley Over Coulter Cancellation

After canceling a speech scheduled to be delivered by Ann Coulter, the University of California at Berkeley was sued by Berkeley College Republicans and Young America’s Foundation. The plaintiffs accuse the University of violating the First Amendment rights of its conservative students, a minority group on campus, by discriminating against speakers with a conservative viewpoint. The University refuted the accusations made in the lawsuit, saying that they respected the right of people of differing viewpoints to speak on their campus.

Washington Post
April 19, 2017: Citing Safety Concerns, Berkeley Cancels Ann Coulter Event

The University of California at Berkeley called off an event featuring Ann Coulter, a conservative commentator known for making controversial statements, in April. School officials cited safety concerns, saying in a letter to Berkeley College Republicans that it was “not possible” for the University “to assure that the event could be held successfully — or that the safety of Ms. Coulter, the event sponsors, audience and bystanders could be adequately protected.”

New York Times
April 11, 2017: Speech by Conservative Writer David Horowitz Canceled

Berkeley College Republicans cancelled a planned speech by David Horowitz, a conservative writer, and blamed the University’s administration.

CBS Local
Feb. 2, 2017: In Response to Riots, Berkeley Cancels Milo Yiannopoulos Event

Administrators of the University of California at Berkeley cancelled a scheduled speech by Milo Yiannopoulos, then a Breitbart News editor, after riots in opposition to his event resulted in $100,000 worth of damage. In a statement, the University condemned the riots and said it regretted having to call off the event because it was “bound by the Constitution, the law, our values and the campus’s Principles of Community to enable free expression across the full spectrum of opinion and perspective.”



History & Legal Cases

While private colleges and universities might promote free speech on their campus in the interest of academic freedom, they are not bound to follow the First Amendment like their public counterparts. Public institutions of higher education, like the University of California at Berkeley, have a legal obligation to protect the freedom of expression on their campuses. In Healy v. James (1972), the Supreme Court held that “state colleges and universities are not enclaves immune from the sweep of the First Amendment” and “held that public institutions of higher education must not refuse recognition of student groups based on unsupported fear of disruption but instead bear a heavy burden to justify a “prior restraint,” that is, a governmental content-based prohibition of expression, on account of First Amendment protection.”

While public schools are not allowed to discriminate against potential campus speakers on the basis of viewpoint or ideology, they are able to impose uniform and reasonable time, place and manner restrictions. Prohibiting individuals from speaking because of their ideology, unless they are advocating immediate violence, is generally considered unconstitutional.

Healy v. James

Hecklers’ Veto

When controversial speakers like Ann Coulter or Milo Yiannopoulos are invited to speak on college campuses, their invitations are often met with (sometimes violent) protests. A “hecklers’ veto” is when these protests, because of fear of disruption or conflict, cause authorities to cancel the event featuring the controversial speaking. According to the First Amendment Center, this has the effect of suppressing the controversial speaker’s free speech rights. The Supreme Court, however, has allowed the use of a “hecklers’ veto” since its ruling in Feiner v. New York (1951). The Knight First Amendment Institute recently engaged leading thinkers to consider “From the Heckler’s Veto to the Provocateur’s Privilege.”

Newseum Institute
Feiner v. New York
Knight First Amendment Institute

Analysis & Opinion

June 4, 2021: Stanford Law School Sends the Wrong Message About Satire, Protected Speech with Investigation of Student

One would think that those running Stanford Law School—an elite law school within an elite university—would know well what students’ First Amendment rights are, and what speech is protected by those rights.

That’s why it was so jarring to see administrators there recently threaten a student’s graduation over a satirical email he sent to the law school community.

Thankfully, Stanford ultimately backed off and allowed the student to graduate. But the fact that this highly visible episode took place at all not only speaks poorly about the climate for free expression at Stanford, it sets a bad example that may be replicated at other universities by censorship-minded administrators.

The controversy also highlights the restrictions often faced by satire and parody.

May 17, 2021: Iowa Legislature Joins Chorus of States Introducing Bills that Intrude On Academic Freedom and Free Speech

Iowa has joined the growing list of states where the legislature has introduced a bill mandating what can and cannot be taught in its public schools, in clear opposition to the First Amendment.

As I’ve written about recently, the state legislatures in IdahoRhode Island, and New Hampshire have all contemplated bills that would prohibit publicly funded educational institutions, including colleges and universities, from providing teaching or training that advances “divisive concepts” about race and gender. These pieces of legislation—and like-minded ones in other states—follow the Trump administration’s ill-conceived “Executive Order on Combatting Race and Sex Stereotyping” from September 2020.

Iowa stands out, though, because among the measures on the table is slashing funding to institutions that utilize The New York Times’ “1619 Project” in U.S. history curriculum. The 1619 Project reframes U.S. history by going back to the first slave ship arriving in America in 1619 and by examining the role that slavery has played throughout American history.

May 13, 2021: Troubling State Bills in Rhode Island, New Hampshire Take Aim at Teaching “Divisive Concepts”

Recently introduced legislation in Rhode Island and New Hampshire continues the trend of state legislatures taking aim at the teaching of “divisive concepts” about race and gender in higher education. The bills, like their counterparts in other states, are deeply flawed and pose a threat to free speech and academic freedom.

Rhode Island’s H6070 bill, introduced in March 2021, mandates that “any contract, grant or training program entered into by the state or any municipality include provisions prohibiting teaching divisive concepts and prohibit making any individual discomfort, guilty, anguish or any distress on account of their race or sex.”

May 6, 2021: Idaho Legislature Continues to Threaten Free Speech, Academic Freedom at State’s Public Universities

Controversy at the state legislative level in Idaho, regarding what may or may not be taught at the state’s public universities, presents an ongoing threat to free speech and academic freedom. It is also one of many recent instances nationwide where state legislatures have intruded upon institutional academic freedom as well as the individual rights of faculty members.

In Idaho, members of the legislature have been trying for over a year to prevent public universities from using state funding to support “social justice”-related activities, organizations, and events on campus. They have advanced budgets that have cut funding and have threatened further cuts. This led Boise State University to suddenly cancel 52 diversity-related classes in March of this year.

Those 52 classes represented sections of University Foundations 200, a course described by Boise State as “inquir[ing] into key ethical ideas and values together, giving equal voice to all who are committed to the public good.”

April 13, 2021: Federal Judge Rules Former Medical Student Cited for Lack of Professionalism Has a Plausible Retaliation Claim

The treatment of former University of Virginia medical student Kieran Ravi Bhattacharya raises serious concerns about the use of “professionalism” to punish those who hold dissident views or dare to challenge authority.  The university suspended and dismissed Bhattacharya after he raised concerns about a presentation from a faculty member about “microaggressions”- often defined as unintentional, subconscious slights or insults often uttered by members of a majority race toward racial minorities.

During a microaggression panel discussion, a faculty member presented her research on microaggressions. Bhattacharya challenged a faculty member’s definition of the term, and expressed concern that “a microaggression is entirely dependent on how the person who’s receiving it is reacting.” He also questioned the faculty member’s research in the area as purely anecdotal, as well as  her methods for gathering evidence on the subject.

Another professor, who attended the event and helped organize it, filed a “professional card” on Bhattacharya writing that he “asked a series of questions that were quite antagonistic toward the panel.”

The university later sent Bhattacharya a note, saying that he could not return to classes until he was seen by someone at counseling and psychology services. Bhattacharya expressed amazement that he would have to seek psychological services because he had challenged a faculty member’s presentation on microaggressions.

April 6, 2021: Sixth Circuit Rejects Garcetti in Context of University Professor’s Classroom Speech

A U.S. Supreme Court ruling creating a categorical bar on the free-speech rights of public employees who speak pursuant to their official job duties does not apply in the university classroom, a federal appeals court has ruled. The Sixth Circuit’s decision in Meriwether v. Hartop  has received more attention for the underlying facts of the case—that Nicholas K. Meriwether, a philosophy professor at Shawnee State University in Portsmouth, Ohio, sued his university after receiving a written reprimand and a Title IX investigation for refusing to address a transgender student by the student’s preferred pronoun.

However, the decision has greater significance in First Amendment law for the Sixth Circuit’s refusal to rely on Shawnee State’s First Amendment defense.  The college relied, in part, on the U.S. Supreme Court’s decision in Garcetti v. Ceballos (2006), a decision in which the High Court drastically reduced the free-speech rights of public employees by creating a new categorical rule – “when public employees make statements pursuant to their official duties, the employees are not speaking as citizens for First Amendment purposes, and the Constitution does not insulate their communications from employer discipline.”

July 2, 2018: How To Interpret The First Amendment In The Age Of Social Media Trolls?

The New Yorker reports on the re-examination of free speech on campus in an age of provocative social media personalities like Milo Yiannopoulos.

The New Yorker

June 14, 2018: Are Campus Free Speech Guidelines #Trending?

The New York Times highlights a trend among some Republican-led state legislatures to impose policies and bills to establish campus free speech guidelines at public colleges and universities, as an anecdote to combat campus protests.

The New York Times

April 27, 2017: No “Parameters” to Campus Free Speech

Responding to New York University’s Ulrich Baer’s New York Times op-ed, Conor Friedersdorf, writes that “Very few words clarify what speech is to be suppressed by what standards, or who is to decide if they are met, as if we needn’t worry overmuch about limiting principles or the abuses that invariably follow when they are absent—even though marginalized groups typically bear the attendant burdens most heavily.”


April 26, 2017: In Support Ann Coulter’s Berkeley Speech

The Editorial Board of The Los Angeles Times said that the University of California at Berkeley has a “fundamental responsibility” to ensure “free expression and unfettered debate” on its campus and should provide Ann Coulter a secure place to speak. Though the editorial calls the lawsuit against Berkeley “unconvincing,” it said that the University was unjustified in canceling the event featuring Coulter. Meanwhile The National Review David French said that the cancellation of Ann Coulter’s speech proves that a “violent Left-wing mob dictates the rules at one of the nation’s (and the world’s) most prominent academic institutions.” French accused University administrators of failing “to protect Americans’ constitutional rights.”

LA Times
National Review

April 24, 2017: Banning Speakers Is Not Censorship, It Ensures Free Speech For Greater Group

Ulrich Baer writes that the free speech debate should be framed by “the way certain topics restrict speech as a public good.” He continues that protests against controversial speakers should be seen “as an attempt to ensure the conditions of free speech for a greater group of people, rather than censorship.”

New York Times

April 20, 2017: Who Has the Right To Speak on Campus

Although public universities are considered public forums, universities do retain the ability to restrict when and where public speakers are able to speak — although these restrictions cannot be based on the content of their speech. Public universities do have “some latitude” to restrict speakers, but those restrictions must be reasonable and applied fairly.

USA Today

Feb. 2, 2017: Berkley Was Once “Birthplace” of Free Speech on Campus

In 1964, student activists at Berkeley launched a free speech movement that would spread nationwide by insisting that the University administration remove restrictions on campus expression. A half century later, the cancellation of an event featuring Milo Yiannopoulos has sparked a “battle” over free speech at the California college.

New York Times

Aug.1, 2016: Campus Free Speech Watchdog FIRE Ramps Up Its Fight

As campus protests make news, FIRE’s mission to promote academic freedom and freedom of expression on campus grows.

New York Times

Oct. 25, 2012: Is Campus Free Speech a Sham?

In an opinion piece in The New York Times, President of the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education (FIRE), Greg Lukianoff, says that campus free speech does not exist and cites examples of where students’ voices have been consistently suppressed. “Colleges have promulgated speech codes that are not only absurd in their results but also detrimental to the ideals of free inquiry. Students can’t learn how to navigate democracy and engage with their fellow citizens if they are forced to think twice before they speak their mind,” he writes.

New York Times