Questions about free speech on campus? UB explains


Published March 6, 2023


Can UB regulate speech on campus?

What about for visitors?

What if the speech is offensive or hateful?

Questions of free speech — the right to articulate opinions without censorship, interference or retaliation from the government — come up all the time at a large university like UB, maybe now as much as ever with issues such as race, gender and religion continuing to polarize the nation.

Here are some frequently asked questions about freedom of expression at UB.

Why doesn’t UB prohibit controversial speakers from coming to campus?

Under the First Amendment, public universities — including UB — cannot disallow student groups and other recognized organizations from inviting speakers to campus based on the content of their speech or the opinions they espouse. UB has no legal option not to allow controversial speakers on campus.

As a public university, UB was built upon the First Amendment and the fundamental right of its community and invited guests to peacefully express their views — even when others disagree. The First Amendment is essential for the free exchange of thought and diversity of opinion, which are at the core of the university’s mission.

At the same time, UB recognizes that offensive speech can be painful or threatening to members of our community, and the fact that UB must allow this speech does not constitute acceptance or an endorsement of repugnant or offensive viewpoints.

ACLU explains why public universities can't block hate speech.

Isn’t hate speech an exception to First Amendment protections?

No. The term “hate speech” does not have a legal definition, but often refers to speech that demeans a person or group of people on the basis of race, religion, ethnic origin, sexual orientation, disability or gender. While UB condemns any speech of this kind, there is no “hate speech” exception to the First Amendment and UB must allow even hateful and offensive speech to occur in public forums.

But doesn’t offensive speech go against UB’s own values?

As UB has seen in the past, speakers may hold opinions contrary to its own or make comments that can polarize the campus as they do the nation. This does not change our core beliefs as a university.

The First Amendment protects the right to say hateful things, but that doesn’t mean we condone them as a university. UB holds steadfast to our values of diversity, inclusion and mutual respect. We are committed to fostering a safe, welcoming environment — just as we are committed to freedom of expression.

Are there exceptions to free speech?

Yes. UB cannot regulate the content of speech unless it falls within one of the very narrow First Amendment exceptions. Those narrow exceptions include speech that explicitly expresses intent to cause immediate bodily harm; incitement of illegal activity, such as if a speaker on campus exhorts an audience to engage in acts of vandalism; and harassment.

UB may also impose “time, place and manner” limitations on student speech. That may include, for example, limiting disruptive behavior during classroom lectures or prohibiting shouting in residence halls in the middle of the night.

When does speech become harassment?

Generally, for speech to rise to the level of harassment it has to be targeted at a student or group of students; be repeated and pervasive; and be threatening, interfering with an individual’s work or education. In the case of club-sponsored speakers on campus, students and other members of the UB community have the option to attend the event or not.

What if I don’t agree with a speaker’s viewpoint? Can I shout them down or protest?

Freedom of expression also gives individuals the right to oppose the opinions of others — just as long as it’s done in such a way that doesn’t limit the speaker or interfere with university operations. The university has a legal obligation under the First Amendment to protect speakers from disruption or interference. 

The university supports the right to peacefully assemble and protest, but there must be a sense of order on campus where discourse remains civil, non-threatening and does not disrupt the thousands who come to campus each day to study and work.