Handling free speech issues on campus

With greater frequency, community colleges face free speech issues in a variety of scenarios.

The First Amendment of the U.S. Constitution prohibits public entities like community colleges from prohibiting, interfering with, or “abridging” the freedom of speech. State constitutions and statutes may provide concurrent or even greater protections for free speech. And, the term “speech” constitutes expression that includes more than just words, and can include what a person wears, reads, performs, protests and more.

This article comes from the June/July issue of AACC’s Community College Journal. Read the entire issue online.

But these rights are not absolute, and certain types of speech are not protected at all (e.g., true threats, incitement of illegal activity, harassment aimed at an individual on basis of protected characteristic), and the law allows colleges to reasonably regulate the “time, place, and manner” of speech.

From controversial campus speakers to campus demonstrations for or against high profile causes, from faculty claims of academic freedom to campus speech codes and free speech zones, and from social media speech to arts and entertainment controversies, we routinely encounter speech-related conflicts in our diverse environments. What are the common elements of success and effectiveness in a college’s preparation for and handling of thorny free speech matters?

Be proactive

In order to demonstrate our colleges’ commitment to maintaining our campuses as places where the open exchange of knowledge and ideas furthers our mission, and in a manner reflective of the most current developments in federal and state law on point, ensure that college policies and procedures are well-tended.

Few good things happen when you try to apply outdated (and possibly illegal) policies and must craft a new approach on the fly. It is important that college policies and procedures with respect to free speech issues be content and viewpoint neutral.

Related article: A look at free speech on campus

Time, place and manner restrictions, and other decisions made in response to a free speech matter should be based not on the speaker’s message, but on other factors such as campus safety or prevention of substantial disruption of the academic environment. To be sure, conduct like disrupting classrooms, blocking exits or entrances or obstructing the path of individuals is not protected.

Be clear on the roles and responsibilities of college personnel who will or may become involved in implementing college procedures, to avoid gaps and “collisions.” Practice implementation and run a tabletop exercise or two to iron out wrinkles and affirm a functional, effective approach.

Be comprehensive and consistent

Free speech issues arise on our campuses in a number of ways, so ensure that your college’s policy is appropriately broad in scope. Use of indoor and outdoor spaces and facilities by outside groups and speakers, by college groups and speakers, solicitation (petitions, recruiting, commercial activity, etc.), distribution of literature, use of amplification, classroom speech and speech on social media or websites are but a few considerations which may be addressed.

Whatever approach your college adopts, be sure to apply it in a consistent college-wide manner, and with any practical exceptions or variances deemed necessary being well supported and documented.

Communicate early and often

With regard to college policies and procedures, consider creating a dedicated “free speech on campus” website with FAQs, descriptions and explanations of the college’s commitments and expectations, and links to campus and external resources. Your college’s position on free speech matters should be well documented and communicated broadly.

In the case of an anticipated controversial event or occurrence, it may be wise to control the narrative by communicating directly with appropriate constituencies, (college and state level boards, elected officials, faculty/staff/ students, alumni and/or donors). If a controversy erupts with no prior notice, prompt, succinct and truthful communication after the fact also will support reputation management concerns and dispel rumors and misinformation.

About the Author

William Mullowney / Leslie Golden
Mullowney is vice president for policy and general counsel at Valencia College in Orlando, Florida. Golden is associate general counsel at the college.