YOUR VOICE

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Your voice has power, and you can use it to have an impact on your world and the issues that matter to you. Here are just a few of the positive ways to put your voice to work:

As you use your voice, it’s important to:

  • Educate yourself about the issues.
  • Consider your own arguments through a critical lens.
  • Listen.
  • Set and be respectful of your own boundaries and the boundaries of others.
  • Get out of your comfort zone and get into the learning zone by considering perspectives and arguments that contradict your own.
  • Prioritize your well-being, particularly when pushing your comfort zones.
  • Remember that we all come from varying experiences and backgrounds, which shape our perspectives in different ways.
  • Be sensitive to varied voter eligibility statuses when speaking about the election with others.
  • Learn the difference between dialogue and debate.
  • Remember that freedom of speech is not freedom from consequences.

HOW DOES THE FIRST AMENDMENT APPLY TO ME?

As a public university system, CSU and its policies adhere to the rights guaranteed in the First Amendment to the Constitution, as it has been interpreted by the United States Supreme Court and other courts.

  • The Supreme Court continues to affirm that public colleges and universities can’t punish or censor the expression of an idea simply because it is offensive or disagreeable.
  • Outside of the classroom and your private spaces, like residence hall rooms, the campus has areas that have been a traditional destination for public speech and assembly, as guaranteed by the First Amendment.
  • True threats to, and/or harassment of, individuals are not protected speech anywhere. They each have a specific legal definition and are usually determined on a case-by-case basis. Acts of violence are never protected by the First Amendment.

Freedom in public speech

On CSU System campuses, public areas like the Lory Student Center Plaza and the CSU Pueblo fountain are “open to all individuals for the purpose of exercising free speech and assembly” subject to the applicable campus policy and its content-neutral time, place, and manner restrictions.  This generally means that the CSU community and members of the general public have the right to express their views in these areas, even if those views are controversial or offensive, unless that manner of expression does not comply with applicable content-neutral restrictions, such as using amplified sound, or is not protected by the First Amendment. Outside of those public areas (in the classroom, residence halls, and other places not considered a public forum), different rules apply – so you want to do some homework about what’s allowed where. 

  • On the CSU Fort Collins campus, you can find that information here.
  • On the CSU Pueblo campus, you can find that information here.
  • On the CSU Global campus, you can find that information here.

PROTESTS & ASSEMBLIES: WHAT IS AND ISN’T ALLOWED?

Allowed:

  • Peaceful assemblies: Assembling in groups for peaceful rallies, demonstrations, and gatherings on parts of the University campus that are designated public forums and comply with applicable policy guidelines. Public health restrictions may apply during the COVID pandemic.
  • Countering speech with other speech: The First Amendment encourages speech and counter speech, and you may exercise your own First Amendment rights to counter someone else’s speech with your own, provided it does not disrupt an event or other function of the University.
  • Events: Authorized organizations may reserve spaces on campus and in campus facilities for events. The sponsoring organization and participants must comply with law enforcement and the campus’s relevant policies and event guidelines. Public health restrictions may apply during the COVID pandemic.
  • Chalking: In certain designated locations, you may express yourself with washable chalk (no spray chalk or paint) on horizontal concrete ground (no steps, paving stones, buildings, or walls). Please check with the applicable policy beforehand to learn where chalking is or is not permitted.
  • Posters: Posters that are sponsored by registered student organizations or an official University unit or department are allowed in designated areas, with University permission.
  • Silent and symbolic protests: Displaying a sign, gesturing, wearing symbolic clothing, or otherwise protesting silently is permissible unless it is a disruptive activity or impedes access to facilities. In addition, such acts should not block the audience’s view or prevent the audience from being able to pay attention to a lawful assembly and/or an official University event.
  • Campaigning: CSU encourages its students, faculty, staff, and other members of the community to participate in political discourse, enlightenment and action, and welcomes these activities to our campuses. As a public university system of the State of Colorado, CSU is subject to the limitations of the Colorado Fair Campaign Practices Act (FCPA), which generally prohibits CSU (and other public entities) from expending any public money for contributions to a campaign for elected office or from urging electors to vote in favor or against any ballot issue or referred measures. Employees and students are free to express their political opinions when speaking or writing as individuals in their personal capacity and not as a representative of an institution.

Not allowed:

  • Unlawful activity.
  • Disruptive activity: Any act that unreasonably interferes with the rights of others to peaceably assemble or to exercise the right of free speech, disrupts the normal functioning of the University, damages property, or endangers health or safety is specifically prohibited.
  • Blocking reasonable access: The University is required by law to provide and maintain reasonable access to, and exit from, any office, classroom, laboratory, or building. This access must not be obstructed at any time.
  • Silencing or attempting to silence a speaker.
  • Preventing others from seeing or hearing at an event: Displaying a sign, gesturing, wearing symbolic clothing, or otherwise protesting silently is permissible unless it is a disruptive activity or impedes access to facilities. In addition, such acts should not block the audience’s view or prevent the audience from being able to pay attention to a lawful assembly and/or an official University event.
  • Unsafe items: The display of firearms or weapons and the illegal possession of firearms or weapons, as well as the possession of torches or other items with an open flame greater than one inch, sticks, poles, shields or other items that may be used to cause injury. Persons may carry signs or flags as long as those signs or flags are not attached to a stick or pole. In addition, depending upon the event and its location, the university may have additional restrictions that limit the possession of other items.
  • Unpermitted events outside public hours: Using campus public areas, including the LSC Plaza and CSU Pueblo fountain area, for events, demonstrations, meetings, assemblies, or other expressive activity before 7 a.m. and after 7 p.m., without a prior reservation for an official university event that has been approved by the University.
  • Posting signs, posters, or banners of any kind on campus trees. It’s just hard on the trees and wildlife.
  • Posting signs, posters, or banners without official permission or in areas not designated for this purpose.
  • Disrupting classes. Classroom speech is different from speech in public forum areas. Certain types of speech aren’t allowed, including any activity that interferes with a faculty member’s ability to conduct class.

NOT ALL SPEECH IS TREATED THE SAME

Classroom speech is different

According to CSU policy, classrooms have different rules than public areas. Classrooms are considered non-public areas – that is, places “normally not intended to be open to the general public for purposes of expressive activities or gatherings.”

That means that certain types of speech allowed in the plaza are not allowed in classrooms, including demonstrations, amplified sound, and signage, as well as “any activity that interferes with academic or operational functions.” Non-public areas do not fall under the same rules about free speech that traditional public areas do.

These same guidelines apply to virtual classrooms and online learning spaces.

Off campus speech may be different

The First Amendment provides that the government cannot punish or restrict speech simply because it may be offensive or disagreeable. The First Amendment does not apply to private actors in the same way and a private business owner or citizen has the ability to control their private space as they see fit. When you step off any  CSU campus or out of the virtual campus, the rules may change. The First Amendment keeps governments from infringing on the rights of people and groups – and a public university is part of the government. But if a business owner, roommate, or friend asks you not to say something in their private space, they have that right – they’re not the government. So it’s important to think about how we talk to each other.

Here are some tools for having personal conversations when you’re uncomfortable or disagree.

Online speech may be different

Your First Amendment rights and responsibilities extend to certain virtual and online environments just as they do when in person. You should consult the rules or policies for an online environment to understand if or when it is open for expression.  An online forum may be open for public expression or it may be limited to certain types of expression … or no expression at all.  Privately owned websites and platforms have the right to administer their own policies on accepted use and access.  

Hate speech (that isn’t protected by the First Amendment) is different

While most hateful speech is protected by the First Amendment, there are times when it may NOT be protected by the law:

  • 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 (obscenity, defamation, fighting words, incitement, threats/intimidation) or involves criminal conduct.
  • When non-verbal symbols are used to encroach on or desecrate private property.

Speech during a public health crisis may be different

There are times – including during a pandemic – when protecting the public health may override free some speech rights. For example, large public gatherings may be restricted to protect the public health. Please see the applicable campus pandemic guidelines for more information.

Speech in or near residence halls is different

Like classrooms, residence halls are considered non-public areas, even at public universities. The courts have ruled that in these spaces, and on the sidewalks leading up to them, students have the right to be left alone from unwanted speech – in the same way that someone living off campus has the right to decide who gets to come into their home and talk to them.

HOW DOES ACADEMIC FREEDOM APPLY TO ME?

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.

Have a specific question about free speech or your rights?

Submit it to YourVoice@colostate.edu.

Some questions and responses may be shared on this site; names will be kept confidential.

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