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The First Amendment guarantees your right to speak, but it doesn’t guarantee that other people have to listen. Other people also have the right to speak and debate your ideas. This is what universities are all about – learning from the different views, experiences, and knowledge of other people, including those who disagree. So it’s important to know the rules and responsibilities that go along with your rights.

The CSU System Free Speech Guide provides information on your rights and responsibilities related to free speech, along with more information on the nuances of First Amendment law. This page has some of the key points to know.


“Speech” is defined broadly by the courts to cover symbolic speech or expressive conduct, including, but not limited to:

  • Protests/demonstrations
  • Clothing
  • Posters/flyers
  • Refraining from speaking

What speech is protected?

Whether speech is protected depends on three factors: The type of speech, the location of the speech, and who is speaking.

Speech may not be protected if it meets a certain standard under one of these categories (keep in mind that these categories may seem simple, but they are defined by generations of case law — so determining what speech is protected and what isn’t is a complex process):

  • Obscenity
  • Defamation
  • Fighting words
  • Incitement
  • Threats/intimidation


Sometimes people say awful, ugly things. They may use language that’s racist, sexist, homophobic, transphobic, insults someone else’s religious beliefs – or is just plain mean. Most of this ugly speech is still free, protected speech. Individuals can respond in a lot of different ways ranging from ignoring it to calling it out publicly on social media. But the government (including universities) can’t silence ugly speech unless it crosses a very specific line into unprotected speech.

When is hateful speech NOT protected under the First Amendment?

  • When it’s directed at a person in a face-to-face confrontation and is meant to inflict injury to a specific person or incite a breach of the peace.
  • When it fits into a category of unprotected speech or involves criminal conduct.
  • When non-verbal symbols are used to encroach on or desecrate private property.

Tips for Dealing with Ugly Speech

Hateful and ugly speech can occur unexpectedly in virtually any location. It may be on a bus, at school, at a shopping center, in a park, or at any number of other public spaces. The unpredictable nature of such encounters can leave us feeling unprepared when an incident occurs. If you remember these key points, however, you can effectively respond. 

Freedom of speech is not freedom from consequences

Supreme Court Justice Louis Brandeis once wrote that the best remedy for speech we dislike is more speech.

You have the right to free expression, but that doesn’t mean that your speech will be free from possible consequences just because it is protected by the First Amendment. Some people may come back at you with counter speech. If you say something offensive, you may find yourself called out for it on social media or in other forums. The university may not silence hate speech, but it can use its own speech to condemn specific acts of hate. People might decide to protest against a speaker you bring to campus. Exercising your right to free speech comes with a responsibility to use that right thoughtfully and intentionally.


The content of this website is for informational purposes only and should not be understood as legal advice. For help with any legal problems or concerns, including those similar to situations described on this site, contact a licensed attorney.

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