Federal and state laws protect individual rights in education, from elementary school through college. That includes your right to free speech. While courts have ruled that schools may put some limits on this right, those rulings dealt with high schools. They don’t necessarily limit the rights of college students.
According to the First Amendment, “Congress shall make no law ... abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press”.
That doesn’t just mean verbal speech. It also includes actions, or wearing clothing intended to communicate messages.
Some of the many things that qualify as “speech” include:
It also protects speech that could be considered offensive, including pornography and vulgarity. Only a few categories of speech aren’t protected:
These categories tend to have very narrow definitions. For example, even if someone’s words caused a fight, it doesn’t automatically make them “fighting words.”
Colleges and universities sometimes try to enforce “civility” or “dignity” by limiting what students can say and/or do. Many schools have hate speech codes and/or free speech zones.
Hate speech codes
Hate speech codes restrict speech that other campus groups may find offensive. But remember, most offensive speech is protected. In the few court cases focused on these codes, the courts have generally found them unconstitutional.
Free speech zones
Free speech zones limit the places on campus where students may speak freely. Universities generally defend these zones by saying they allow students the freedom of speech without disrupting other school activities.
But they actually restrict free speech, usually to small, isolated areas of the campus. Courts are starting to rule that this runs contrary to the protections of the First Amendment.
First Amendment rights also extend to college newspapers. Unlike high schools, colleges generally cannot regulate the content of student papers.
In short, college students are adults and have the same free speech rights as other adults.
The First Amendment only protects speech from government interference. That’s why public colleges and universities—which are government funded—only have a limited ability to restrict speech.
Private schools have much more freedom to define restrictive missions and limit their students’ activities to those that fit with their missions. The Bill of Rights also protects them from too much government interference.
Ideally, you’ll be aware of a college’s restrictions before coming to campus. By choosing to attend, you’ll effectively entered into a voluntary contract to live within those rules.
But private universities aren’t completely above the law. If they present themselves as open to free speech, you have the right to expect that when you get to campus. If that’s not the case, the school may be violating state laws involving contracts and/or requiring organizations to deal in good faith.
If you feel your school’s policies or actions violate your rights, you have the right to complain. You may want to start with your school’s grievance procedure.
The exact process may depend on whether you are simply protesting a rule or you have already been found guilty of violating one. Depending on your situation, you may have the right to appeal a decision against you to the Dean of Students, Vice President for Student Affairs or a similar person.
Legal action may also be an option. For example, in 2014 college students in several states filed lawsuits alleging their schools’ free speech zones were infringing on their rights.
A lawyer can help you understand if filing a lawsuit would be useful for your case.