Free Speech Rights On Private College Campuses

Protecting Your Freedom at the Private University: Practical Steps

When applying to a private college or university, students should ask for its specific policies on free speech, academic freedom, and legal equality, and they should do research on the schools to which they are applying, starting at FIRE's database on restrictions of student speech, at Once at an institution of higher learning, individuals who find themselves subjected to disciplinary action (or in fear of disciplinary action) should immediately look very closely at the college's or university's own promotional materials, brochures, and websites. If you are such a student, read carefully the cases cited in the Appendix to this Guide, so that you can better understand the extent of your rights.

Embattled students should take care to recollect (and to confirm with others) any specific conversations they may have had with university officials regarding free speech and expression. If those promises or inducements are clear enough, then a court may well hold the university to its word. This is an area of law, however, with many variations and much unpredictability. Some courts have given colleges vast leeway in interpreting and following their own internal policies and promises, and in some states, therefore, a college will be held only to what lawyers call "general" -- as opposed to "strict" -- adherence to its own rules. Still, the general rule remains: If a university has stated a policy in writing, a court will require the university to adhere to that policy, at least in broad terms.

Regardless of the level of legal protection enjoyed by students at any given private university, they should not be reluctant to publicize the university's oppressive actions. Campus oppression is often so alien and outrageous to average citizens outside the university that university officials -- unwilling or unable to "justify" their shameless actions to alumni, donors, the media, and prospective students -- find it easier to do the right thing than stubbornly to defend the wrong thing. Again and again, FIRE has won victories without resorting to litigation simply by reminding campus officials of their moral obligation to respect basic rights of free speech and expression, and by explaining to them what the public debate about such obligations would look like. A brief visit to FIRE's website,, demonstrates how public exposure can be decisive, and many cases never appear on the website because an administration will back down at the first inquiries about its unjust or repressive actions. As a result of FIRE's intervention, university policies have been changed, professors' jobs have been preserved, student clubs have been recognized, and, above all, students' individual rights, moral and legal -- including freedom of speech -- have been saved or expanded. Do not be fatalistic, and do not feel alone. Liberty is a wonderful thing for which to fight, and there are many voices in the larger society, across the political spectrum, who understand the precious value of freedom of expression.

University officials are all too aware of the devastating impact of public exposure on authoritarian campuses. As a result, they will often be desperate to prevent embattled students from going public. Students who fight oppressive rulings are often admonished (in paternalistic tones) to keep the dispute "inside the community" or are told that "no one wants to get outsiders involved". Unless you are absolutely certain that private discussions will bear fruit, do not take this "advice". Very often, public debate is the most powerful weapon in your arsenal. Do not lay down your arms before you even have an opportunity to defend yourself and your rights.