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Free Speech at Boise State University

By: Sherry Squires   Published 8:21 am / September 22, 2017

Across the country, matters of free speech have taken the spotlight. In accordance with the First Amendment to the U.S. Constitution, Boise State University recognizes and supports the rights of free expression and speech, and remains a place for the broadest expression of views. The First Amendment forbids public entities, including universities, from restricting or regulating expression because of its message or ideas.

Court rulings and legal tests help define what speech is protected by the First Amendment and what speech is unprotected. Generally, all speech is considered protected unless it presents a clear and present danger, is obscene, or an imminent, “true threat.”

Even if speech, signs or images are hateful or offensive, they are likely still protected by the First Amendment. There is a legal test for when offensive speech rises to the level of harassment and is, at that point, unprotected by the First Amendment. Generally, in order to constitute harassment, conduct must demean or show hostility toward an individual because of protected class status, and must be severe enough to create an intimidating, hostile or offensive environment for academic pursuits, employment or participation in university-sponsored activities.

The university takes allegations of harassment seriously and employs a process for investigating complaints of harassment and determining sanctions if conduct does constitute harassment. The Boise State Office of Institutional Compliance and Ethics determines these on a case-by-case basis and will specifically consider the aggressor, the target, the conduct and the effects.

In addition, the Constitution protects speech, not actions. There is no First Amendment right to engage in civil disobedience – violations of the law – without incurring consequences. Actions and speech in violation of laws or regulations may conflict with the free speech rights, may disrupt or interfere with university business and academic efforts, or even threaten public safety or university assets. This may require the university or law enforcement to act to protect those other interests.

Other forms of protected speech:

There are many other forms of speech which are considered protected to some varying degree or level, including, in the higher education environment, speech protected by the principle of academic freedom. This doctrine ensures freedom of inquiry and research, and freedom of expression in the pursuit of academic publication and teaching. Academic freedom gives those in the academic environment the freedom to explore and challenge conventional thought and stir meaningful, open debate.

Another protected form of speech is commercial speech, although it enjoys less protection under the First Amendment. Examples of commercial speech are advertisements or other speech proposing a commercial transaction.

And of course, while many forms of speech enjoy protection under the First Amendment, regulation by the university of speech based on “time, place and manner” of expression which meet certain criteria – content neutral, narrowly tailored to serve a significant government interest, and leaving open ample alternative channels of communication – is authorized in the law.

Report Violations and Concerns

An online reporting hotline is available through the Office of Institutional Compliance and Ethics.

Get Support

The First Amendment has the potential to offend and even to hurt. While the university cannot restrict these liberties, it offers many services to help students, faculty and staff cope with the discomfort that the free and open exchange of ideas can bring.

Confidential Resources:

Additional Resources: