Frequently Asked Questions
The First Amendment to the U.S. Constitution protects the freedom of speech, religion, and the press. It also protects the right to peaceful protest and to petition the government. The scope of the First Amendment continues to be interpreted and defined by an evolving body of case law. Notable Supreme Court cases have addressed a number of issues, including the right of citizens to protest U.S. involvement in foreign wars (Tinker v. Des Moines (1969)), flag burning (Texas v. Johnson (1989)), and the applicability of the First Amendment on college and university campuses (Healy v. James (1972)).
Freedom of speech is the right of a person to articulate opinions and ideas without interference or retaliation from the government. The term “speech” constitutes expression that includes far more than just words, but also 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 many state and federal laws. The United States’ free speech protections are among the strongest of any democracy; the First Amendment protects even speech that many would see as offensive, hateful or harassing.
Texas A&M University is governed by the U.S. Constitution’s First Amendment, which limits its ability to restrict freedom of speech, even if the content is considered offensive or hateful. The University cannot prohibit speakers from coming to campus just because individuals from the campus or surrounding community disagree with the content of the speaker’s presentation or with their opinion.
Texas A&M can set limits on a speaker’s appearance that aren’t related to speech content. Those limits include setting reasonable time, place, and manner restrictions. Those rights also include not allowing speech to occur in a manner that disrupts classrooms, research labs, and offices.
Neither the First Amendment nor University policies require the University to put anyone’s safety at risk when the campus has identified a serious threat of imminent harm to students, faculty, and staff. It is the safety risk – not the speaker’s viewpoint – that would be the sole basis for a decision to decline a request.
The Supreme Court has said that public entities such as Texas A&M 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. Texas A&M can regulate where, when and how speech occurs to ensure the functioning of the campus and achieve important goals, such as protecting public safety.
When it comes to controversial speakers, Texas A&M invokes this necessary authority in order to hold events at a time and location that maximizes the chance that an event will proceed successfully and that the campus community will not be made unsafe. Texas A&M heeds law enforcement’s assessment of how best to hold safe and successful events.
The University might 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 the campus police force believes to be protectable (e.g. one with an ample number of exits, with the ability to be cordoned off, without floor to ceiling glass, etc.).
The Constitution guarantees freedom of speech by default, placing the burden on the state to demonstrate whether there are any circumstances that justify its limitation. When it comes to controversial speakers delivering remarks on campus, the relevant exceptions to the First Amendment that have been established are:
Speech that would be deemed a “true threat”: True threats encompass those statements where the speaker means to communicate, in the entire context of the communication and all surrounding circumstances, a serious expression of an intent to commit an act of unlawful violence to a particular person or group of persons. The speaker need not actually intend to carry out the threat. A prohibition on true threats protects individuals from the fear of violence and the disruption that fear engenders. True threat analysis considers whether a reasonable person would be in fear of immediate bodily harm; the standard is objective, not subjective.
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 in an educational institution aimed at an individual on the basis of a protected characteristic (race, gender, sexual orientation, religion); that is also pervasive and severe; is a direct or implied threat to employment or education; or creates an intimidating, hostile and demeaning atmosphere.
The term “hate speech” does not have a legal definition in the United States, but it often refers to speech that insults or demeans a person or group of people on the basis of attributes such as race, religion, ethnic origin, sexual orientation, disability or gender. While Texas A&M condemns speech of this kind, there is no “hate speech” exception to the First Amendment and it is only illegal if it falls into one of the categories described above. In fact, on many occasions, the Supreme Court has explicitly held that prohibitions or punishments for hateful speech violate the First Amendment.
Just because there is a First Amendment right to say something, however, doesn’t mean that it should be said. The First Amendment protects a right to say hateful things, but we strive as a campus to be a community where no one will choose to express hate. Hate is not an Aggie value.
Canceling events must be a last resort to be used only when the campus, despite taking all reasonable steps, believes that it cannot protect the safety of its students, staff and faculty. Events can never legally be canceled based on the likely offensiveness of the speaker’s message.