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Student Expression

The First Amendment

The First Amendment to the U.S. Constitution is relatively short, yet it protects one of our most basic freedoms. It reads in full:

"Congress shall make no law 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."

 “But, above all else, the First Amendment means that government has no power to restrict expression because of its message, its ideas, its subject matter, or its content.”
—Supreme Court Justice Thurgood Marshall, Police Department of Chicago v. Mosley (1972)

First Amendment FAQs

Yes. The U has a speech policy that covers everything from academic freedom to the posting of signs. Policy 1-007-University Speech Policy is available to read in-full online.

Generally, the First Amendment to the U.S. Constitution protects all speech, although the following forms of speech enjoy varying degrees of lesser protection:

  • Obscenity (e.g., child pornography).
  • Defamation/libel.
  • Involving illegal conduct. Examples:
    • Criminal threat: Any person who willfully threatens to commit a crime which will result in death or great bodily injury to another person, with the specific intent that the statement is to be taken as a threat, even if there is no intent of actually carrying it out. The threat must be, on its face and under the circumstances in which it is made, so unequivocal, unconditional, immediate, and specific as to cause the person threatened to reasonably fear for their safety or their immediate family's safety.
    • Hanging a noose on a college campus for the purpose of terrorizing members of the campus community with the knowledge that it is a symbol representing a threat to life.
    • Obstruction of a police officer.
    • Fighting or challenging another to fight in a public place.
    • Use of offensive words in a public place which are inherently likely to provoke an immediate violent reaction (e.g., "fighting words").
    • Inciting illegal activity.
    • Willful disturbance of any lawful meeting
    • Unlawful assembly and refusal to disperse
    • Vandalism and defacing property
    • Disturbance by loud and unreasonable noise
    • Trespass

Yes, for the most part. The University of Utah is committed to preserving both freedom of speech and the many other rights in the Constitution that are guaranteed to campus community members.   The Supreme Court has ruled that the First Amendment protects students and teachers in public schools, such as the University of Utah.  However, the First Amendment rights of students are not absolute; conduct that materially disrupts classwork or involves substantial disorder or invasion of the rights of others is subject to discipline.

Protests and civil disobedience have played a historic role on university campuses in bringing meaningful and significant changes within society and in the development of our democracy. However, civil disobedience is not protected speech under the Constitution. The Constitution does not guarantee any right to engage in civil disobedience—which, by its very definition, involves the violation of laws or regulations—without incurring consequences. Civil disobedience may have a negative effect on the protected interests of others and may interfere with University business or threaten public safety or University assets in ways that require the University to act to protect those other interests.

The Code of Student Rights and Responsibilities (“Student Code”) supports the mission of the University of Utah, which is to educate the individual and to discover, refine, and disseminate knowledge. The University supports the intellectual, personal, social, and ethical development of members of the University community. These goals can best be achieved in an open and supportive environment that encourages reasoned discourse, honesty, and respect for all individuals' rights. Students at the University of Utah are encouraged to exercise personal responsibility and self-discipline and engage in the rigors of discovery and scholarship. Students at the University of Utah are members of an academic community committed to basic and broadly shared ethical principles and concepts of civility. Integrity, autonomy, justice, respect, and responsibility represent the basis for the rights and responsibilities that follow. Participation in the University of Utah community obligates each member to follow a code of civilized behavior.

The term "hate speech" is not defined by law, and no such category exists as an exception to the First Amendment. Thus, even if speech is hateful or offensive, it is still protected by the First Amendment unless it includes speech that is not protected (e.g., criminal threats, fighting words).

Legal scholars have supported the idea that the best way to respond to hateful or offensive speech is not to limit it but to encourage more speech. For example, as Justice Louis Brandeis famously wrote, "[i]f there be time to expose through discussion the falsehood and fallacies, to avert the evil by the processes of education, the remedy to be applied is more speech, not enforced silence." Whitney v. California, 274 U.S. 357, 377 (1927). Likewise, the American Civil Liberties Union believes that: "where racist, sexist, and homophobic speech is concerned…more speech—not less—is the best response. This is particularly true at universities, where the mission is to facilitate learning through open debate and study, and to enlighten.

It is important to note that while hate speech is in itself not a category excepted by the First Amendment, the First Amendment does not protect conduct just because it is motivated by an individual’s beliefs or opinions. Thus, hate crimes may be regulated by law and are not protected by the First Amendment.

The University of Utah offers tools and mechanisms to address words or actions that impact campus climate or violate the Student Code and/or other university policies. Students who encounter hurtful or offensive speech are encouraged to reach out for support. Learn more about responding to hateful speech or acts.

The University is bound by the Constitution not to limit speech based on its content, even though the University may vigorously disagree with the viewpoint expressed. Even though speech may contravene our community values, the speaker cannot be punished for such a violation. The University may, however, and does speak out against such speech.

All open spaces outside of buildings are available for assembly and speech. In years past, the U had designated the Union Plaza as the “free speech zone,” but it has grown to include all outdoor areas on campus.

The principles of academic freedom protect freedom of inquiry and research, freedom of teaching, and freedom of expression and publication. These freedoms enable the University to advance knowledge and transmit it effectively to its students and the public. The University also seeks to foster in its students a mature independence of mind, and this purpose cannot be achieved unless students and faculty are free within the classroom to express the widest range of viewpoints in accord with the standards of scholarly inquiry and professional ethics.

Discussion and expression of all views relevant to the subject matter of a class are recognized as necessary to the educational process, but students have no right to impinge on the freedom of instructors to teach or the right of other students to learn. If a student persists in behaving disruptively in class after the instructor has explained the unacceptability of such conduct, the instructor may dismiss the student from the class and may refer the matter to the University’s Student Behavior Committee. Upon dismissing a student from class, the instructor shall immediately notify the Dean of Students of the action so the student may be informed of the student’s right to appeal the dismissal.

Yes. You’ll find it under section III. General Policies, subsection N, which reads, “Members of the University community and their organizations shall have the right to invite speakers to address audiences on campus (at the expense of the organization and members), subject only to reasonable and nondiscriminatory regulations governing the use of University facilities. The rights of speakers to freedom of expression under the Constitution of the United States and the Constitution of the State of Utah shall be protected. The rights of speakers to speak, and audiences to hear free from undue disruption and interference shall also be protected. Members of the University community and their organizations who invite speakers to address audiences on or off the campus, except University organizations designated by the University or any college or department as an official organization of the University, may not use the name of the University to imply official University sponsorship of the speaker in advertising or publicizing the event, except to identify the location of the event.”

There is no bright line that determines when protected speech becomes illegal harassment.  However, some key factors must exist for the conduct to arise to illegal harassment. Harassment generally requires that speech be specifically targeted at a student or group of students.  It requires discriminatory speech based upon sex/gender, disability, religion, race, color, or national origin. The law requires the Hence, we are left to interpret harassment based on general standards. Generally, harassment requires that speech be of the following nature: (1) specifically targeted at a student or group of students, and conduct to be severe [e.g., highly offensive, intimidating or threatening], pervasive [e.g., repeated] and objectively offensive.  The conduct must also have the actual effect of interfering with or creating an intimidating, hostile, or offensive environment for the target of the conduct. The University of Utah remains committed to maintaining an educational environment free of harassing speech in order to encourage the free exchange of ideas and a robust learning environment.

Learn more about the University's non-discrimination policy.

The University of Utah supports and is committed to open, free and robust discussion, debate, and exchange of ideas as an indispensable part of its educational mission, especially when the ideas expressed are controversial and unpopular. The University of Utah also has the obligation, however, to ensure the safety and security of persons and property and that University operations, functions, and events are not disrupted. The time, place, and manner of persons exercising their rights of free expression, speech, assembly, and religious worship are subject to campus regulation. These regulations apply to all members of the University community, including students, faculty, staff, administrators, volunteers, and non-affiliated members of the public, while on University property. The University of Utah supports creative, thoughtful, and respectful discourse where conflicting perspectives are vigorously debated and thoroughly discussed. The University of Utah is dedicated to affording all members of the University of Utah community the protections for free speech, expression, assembly, religion, and press available under the U.S. and Utah constitutions and all applicable federal and state laws, in accordance with the University's purpose and function except insofar as limitations on those freedoms are necessary to the University of Utah's functioning. It is not the proper role of the University to attempt to shield persons from ideas and opinions they find unwelcome, disagreeable, or even deeply offensive. Although the University of Utah greatly values civility, and although all members of the University of Utah community share in the responsibility for maintaining a climate of mutual respect, concerns about civility and mutual respect are not a justification for closing discussions of ideas, however offensive or disagreeable those ideas may be. Yet, the University also has the duty to restrict expression that violates the law, falsely defames a specific individual, constitutes a genuine threat or harassment, unjustifiably invades substantial privacy and confidentiality interests, or is otherwise directly incompatible with the University's functioning. Additionally, the University of Utah may reasonably regulate the time, place, and manner of expression on University property and over its communication systems to ensure the expression does not disrupt ordinary University functions and activities.

Short answer: No. The University has a process for that. Posting of signs, notices, and posters are part of the U’s speech policy (section V. Signs, Literature, and Structures). The general policy is: “The University shall provide reasonable space indoors and outdoors for the posting of signs, notices, and posters by members of the University community and their organizations. Such signs, notices, and posters may deal with any subject matter including, but not limited to, notices of meetings or events and expressions of positions and ideas on social or political topics, and must clearly identify the author or sponsor of the materials. Members of the University community and their organizations may post signs, notices, and posters on bulletin boards and kiosks maintained by the University and located on the campus. Signs, notices, and posters shall not be attached to trees, buildings, walls, or other University structures unless otherwise expressly authorized by the Scheduling Office. Messages or slogans of any kind shall not be painted or otherwise written on trees, buildings, sidewalks, grounds fountains, walls or other University structures or surfaces, or on the personal property of others.”

The Office of the Dean of Students. We’re located in room 270 of the Student Union Building. You may also email us at deanofstudents@utah.edu or call 801-581-7066.

Yes. The ACLU published a helpful resource to review if you are organizing or participating in an off-campus protest.

Last Updated: 11/3/20