Free Speech Rights On Private College Campuses

Know Your Censors and Your Rights

While methods of censorship are limited only by the creativity of the censors, most campus efforts to suppress what should be protected speech follow several obvious patterns. Universities typically attempt to control or limit student rights through what lawyers call "compelling" speech (forcing individuals to say things they otherwise might choose not to say) or, closely related, by requiring some form of stated agreement with the political and ideological views of administrators and members of the faculty. This is almost always undertaken through vague or overbroad rules. Often, our colleges and universities abuse legitimate laws and regulations in order to punish, unlawfully or immorally, unpopular viewpoints. Often, they impose what are known as "prior restraints", that is, rules that silence speech before it can be uttered (rather than deal with it afterward). Often, our campuses abuse "hate speech" or "harassment" regulations in wholly illegitimate ways.

If students intend to protect their rights, they need to understand the nature of the oppression that others would impose on them. Just as a doctor needs a diagnosis before prescribing a medication, students need to identify the unconstitutional restrictions they face before bringing the correct arguments to bear. The insight that "knowledge is power" applies very much to constitutional law. You should never assume that university officials either know or have considered the law -- even if the official in question is a lawyer. In FIRE's experience, few university lawyers have more than a passing knowledge of the First Amendment. Students would be well advised to consult (and well instructed by consulting) the specific and helpfully indexed First Amendment library at By defining the terms of the debate -- and the doctrine that actually applies to a problem -- students and their supporters can win battles for their basic human and constitutional rights at the very start.