Frequently Asked Questions (FAQ)

Ideally, people will treat each other with respect, dignity and civility, but reprehensible speech that does not meet these ideals may still be protected speech under the First Amendment. These Frequently Asked Questions offer a general overview of how the First Amendment applies in an university setting like ours. First Amendment law is complicated and constantly evolving. The following is intended only as a general educational overview and not as a statement of how the law would necessarily apply in a specific instance.



Free Speech

  • What does the First Amendment say?
    "Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the Government for a redress of grievances."
  • What is freedom of speech and what does it protect?

    Freedom of speech is the right of persons to articulate their opinions and ideas without interference or retaliation from the government. The term “speech” constitutes expression that includes far more than just words, but can also include what a person wears, reads, performs, protests, and more. 

    In the United States, freedom of speech is strongly protected by the First Amendment of the U.S. Constitution, as well as by many state and federal laws. The United States’ free speech protections are among the strongest of any democracy; the First Amendment protects speech that some view as offensive, hateful, or harassing.

  • How does the First Amendment right to free speech apply to controversial speakers who have been invited to Michigan State University by recognized student clubs and organizations?

    As a public institution, the U.S. Constitution generally prohibits Michigan State University from banning or punishing speech based on its content or viewpoint. Registered student clubs and organizations are welcome to and provide access to appropriate campus venues that have been made available for that purpose, in accordance with the policies outlined in the Student Organization Handbook - Procedures for conducting an On-campus Activity section.

    The University cannot take away that right or withdraw resources based on the views of the invited speaker. Doing so would violate the First Amendment rights of the student club or group.



  • Can Michigan State cancel a student-sponsored event if the administration or the campus community disagrees with the speaker’s views?

    No, as this would violate the First Amendment rights of student clubs and organizations who sponsored the event. While student clubs and organizations have the right to free speech and to invite speakers of all kinds to campus, these groups are encouraged to consider that such autonomy comes with a responsibility for the consequences of their words and actions. Controversial viewpoints should encourage open dialogue. Vehement disagreement does not foreclose dialogue or the right to promote a campus environment where unusual or unorthodox thought is allowed.

    In some circumstances, Michigan State can cancel events if there are legally sufficient grounds, for example serious public safety concerns, that are unrelated to content or viewpoint expressed by the speaker or event.
  • What are "time, place, and manner" restrictions? How do they relate to controversial speakers?

    The Supreme Court has said that public entities, including Michigan State University, have discretion to regulate the "time, place, and manner" of speech. The right to speak on campus is not a right to speak at any time, at any place, and in any manner that a person wishes. The University can regulate where, when, and how speech occurs in order to ensure the functioning of the campus and achievement of important goals – such educating students and protecting public safety.

    Accordingly, the First Amendment does not protect an individual’s right to disrupt a class, play loud music in dorms late at night, or impede other people’s ability to enter and exit buildings, for example.

    When it comes to controversial speakers, Michigan State University invokes this necessary authority in order to hold events at a time and location that maximizes the chances that an event will proceed successfully and safely. The University heeds the MSU Police Department’s assessment of how best to hold safe and successful events. The University may invoke its time, place, and manner discretion, for example, to ensure that an event with a highly controversial speaker would be held in a venue that MSUPD believes to be protectable (e.g., one with an ample number of exits, etc.).

    The need to consider time, place, and manner regulations is the reason that we require students to work with Student Affairs when setting up their events, as opposed to scheduling and creating events on their own. If an event is held without following Michigan State policy, it may not be protected by the First Amendment.
  • Which types of speech are not protected by the First Amendment?

    The U.S. Constitution guarantees freedom of speech by default, placing the burden on the state to demonstrate whether there are any circumstances that justify its limitation. Established exceptions to the First Amendment include, but are not limited to, the following:

    Speech that would be deemed a “true threat”: Speech that a person reasonably would perceive as an immediate threat to their physical safety is not protected by the First Amendment. For example, if a group of students yelled at a student in a menacing way that would cause the student to fear a physical assault, such speech would likely not be protected.

    Incitement of illegal activity: There is no right to incite people to break the law, including to commit acts of violence. To constitute incitement, the Supreme Court has said that there must be a substantial likelihood of imminent illegal activity and the speech must be directed to causing imminent illegal activity. For example, a speaker on campus who exhorts the audience to engage in acts of vandalism and destruction of property is not protected by the First Amendment if there is a substantial likelihood of imminent illegal activity.

    Harassment: Harassment in an educational institution aimed at an individual on the basis of a protected characteristic (e.g., race, gender, sexual orientation, religion, etc.) and that is pervasive and severe is not protected by the First Amendment. Conduct prohibited by Michigan State’s Anti-Discrimination Policy is not protected by the First Amendment.

  • What is "hate speech?" Is it illegal?
    The term “hate speech” does not have a legal definition in the United States. Nevertheless, the term often refers to speech that insults or demeans a person or group of people on the basis of particular attributes such as race, religion, ethnic origin, sexual orientation, disability, or gender. While the University condemns speech of this kind, there is no “hate speech” exception to the First Amendment. “Hate speech” can be constitutionally protected speech. “Hate speech” may not be protected, however, if it also a “true threat” or “harassment” or another type of unprotected speech. If not protected speech, such speech would likely violate MSU’s Anti-Discrimination Policy or other student, staff, or faculty conduct policies. Anyone who has been subject to or witnessed hate speech on campus and is unsure whether it constitutes protected speech is encouraged to report the incident to the Office of Institutional Equity.

Polices and Resources

Political Activity

  • Are candidates and advocates allowed to hand out leaflets on campus? If so, are there any time, place or manner restrictions?

    Michigan State is an open campus; candidates and members of the community  may be permitted in public areas of the grounds and buildings and may hand out leaflets provided they do not disrupt University activities or services.

    Michigan State recognizes the basic role of political parties and elections in the American system of governance and, therefore, acknowledges the University's responsibility to facilitate the free exchange of ideas in a political as well as an academic sense. Furthermore, Michigan State encourages students to be informed about and participate in the political process.

    Nevertheless, as a public institution serving and supported by all the people of Michigan, the University must take extreme care to avoid political favoritism and improper partisan activity. In order to meet these dual public responsibilities, the University has a policy on the use of facilities for political activities. The University has also developed these guidelines regarding political activities on campus.


  • If someone is holding an event on campus, can I protest it?

    Yes. Michigan State encourages all who engage in protest activity to do so safely and in accordance with the University’s Disorderly Assemblages or  Conduct ordinance. Below are some helpful reminders:

    • Avoid activity that obstructs the free movement of vehicles or persons such as blocking hallways and doors.
    • Do not jeopardize the safety and security of others.
    Leave an area where others are engaging in illegal activities and acts of violence. Your presence may be interpreted as participating in a riot or illegal group action.
  • Does the First Amendment protect civil disobedience on campus?
    No. While the First Amendment protects freedom of speech and expression, it does not protect engagement in civil disobedience. By definition, civil disobedience involves the violation of laws or regulations, and has historically played a significant role in various social movements. Participation in civil disobedience, whether on- or off-campus, can result in arrest and criminal or University conduct charges. So if, for example, student protesters take over a campus building, or disrupt classes or events, their actions may be subject to punishment not only under the Student Rights and Responsibilities, but also in criminal court if the conduct constitutes a crime.
  • Does the First Amendment allow people who oppose a speaker’s message to disrupt an event?
    Generally, no. If, for example, a speaker is giving a scheduled speech in an auditorium on campus, attempts to prevent that speaker from speaking by disrupting the event would likely not be protected by the First Amendment. Protests conducted in a nearby public forum that complied with the University’s Disorderly Assemblages or  Conduct ordinance likely would be protected by the First Amendment.
  • How do time, place, and manner restrictions relate to protest?

    As noted above, the Supreme Court has said that public entities like Michigan State University have discretion in regulating the "time, place, and manner" of speech. The right to speak on campus is not a right to speak at any time, at any place, and in any manner that a person wishes. These restrictions do not vary depending on the views or ideas being expressed; rather, they are about ensuring that speech occurs in a way that does not disrupt the University’s mission or endanger public safety.

    The University has an ordinance related to protest that is designed to prevent substantial disruption of educational activities, protect lawful access to campus programs and facilities, avoid unsafe behavior, and prevent the destruction of property. Its application does not vary according to the cause or content of a particular protest, speech, or other form of expression, and the rules and regulations are designed to enable extensive opportunity for expressive activity.

Social Media