What speech is protected by the First Amendment?

The First Amendment to the Constitution protects the freedom of religion, speech, of the press, and of the right of the people peaceably to assemble and to petition the Government for the redress of grievances. Free speech can include protests, demonstrations, rallies, vigils, marches, public speaking, distribution of printed materials, carrying signs, displays, and circulating petitions. The First Amendment protects loathsome, distasteful, offensive and unpopular speech with the same force as it protects speech that is celebrated and widely accepted. It is not the place of colleges and universities to censor the speech of people on campus or to shield people from ideas and opinions; instead, it is for UT’s students and faculty to make judgments about ideas for themselves.

Where can I learn more about the First Amendment?
What is UT Martin’s stance on freedom of expression/free speech?

The University of Tennessee at Martin

  • Supports the rights of students and other members of the campus community to freely express their views for or against actions and opinions with which they agree or disagree;
  • Recognizes a concurrent obligation to safeguard freedom of speech while, at the same time, maintaining an atmosphere on campus conducive to academic work; and
  • Will preserve the dignity and seriousness of university ceremonies and public exercises and will respect the private rights of all individuals.
What is not protected by the First Amendment? What crosses the line of unprotected speech?

Not all speech is protected by the First Amendment. For example, harassment is not protected. Harassment means unwelcome conduct directed toward a person that is discriminatory on a basis prohibited by federal, state, or local law, and that is so severe, pervasive, and objectively offensive that it effectively bars the victim’s access to an educational opportunity or benefit.

Other kinds of speech, such as incitements to violence, are also not protected, but the rules for what makes a speech unprotected because of its danger of causing violence are very strict. In Brandenburg v. Ohio, the US Supreme Court held that the government cannot punish inflammatory speech unless it is directed to inciting or producing imminent lawless action and is likely to incite or produce such action.

Who can I talk to if I have a concern about freedom of expression/free speech at UT?

The Division of Student Affairs is available to assist students with questions or concerns about freedom of expression or freedom of speech at UT Martin.

Office of Student Affairs

222 Administration Building



What is hate speech?

Hate speech is speech that offends, threatens, or insults individuals or groups on the basis of race, color, religion, national origin, sexual orientation, disability, or other traits. Developing policies that limit hate speech runs the risk of limiting an individual’s ability to exercise free speech. When a conflict arises about which is more important—protecting community interests or safeguarding the rights of the individual—a balance must be found that protects the civil rights of all without limiting the civil liberties of the speaker.

What is the best way to respond to hate speech or report it?

The best response to speech you do not agree with is more speech, so you can get your message out.

Members of the campus community who believe they are victims of a bias motivated incident or crime, or who have witnessed an incident or crime, can report to the Division of Student AffairsOffice of Student Conduct, or the Office of Public Safety. You can also report incidents online using the Hawk Alert system.

In responding to reports of bias, UTM will not violate the First Amendment rights of students, faculty, or staff. Even when an incident of bias occurs, disciplinary or corrective action may not be taken toward the offender if it is determined that the act of bias was a protected exercise of their freedom of expression.

How do outside speakers get invited to speak on campus?

Student organizations, faculty, or university units can invite people not affiliated with the university to participate in free speech activities.

What about people who come to speak on campus who are not invited by UT?

There are a few spaces on campus that can be rented out to groups that are not affiliated with the university for private events. Additionally, nonaffiliated people can participate in free expression activities on certain streets and sidewalks.

The fact that the university has rented a facility to a group not affiliated with the university or allowed a group to speak on campus does not mean that the university has approved of or endorsed the group’s message.

Learn more about the policy on use of university property by non-affiliated persons for free expression activities.

Are people allowed to protest on campus?

The university maintains the generally accessible, open, outdoor areas of its campus as traditional public forums for free speech by students. Students generally have the right to engage in spontaneous outdoor assemblies, except in places that have been previously reserved by others.

Nonaffiliated people can engage in protest activities on the streets and sidewalks that are open to them for free expression activities.

The university may impose reasonable time, place, and manner restrictions regarding any protest activity. See the Student Handbook (page 12) for the policy on Freedom of Assembly.

Learn more about the policy on use of university property by non-affiliated persons for free expression activities.

Can anyone pass out flyers or hang posters across campus?

UT Martin “Sign Posting Procedures” can found on the University Relations website and in the Student Handbook (page 40).

The university does remove unauthorized posters, graffiti-style writing, and messages placed in areas or on buildings where they are prohibited.

Who is allowed to solicit on campus?

Both commercial and noncommercial solicitations are prohibited in nonpublic areas of the university. Solicitations and sales in public areas of the university are restricted to invitees, registered organizations, and faculty, staff, and students of the university and are subject to reasonable restrictions as to time, place, and manner.

More information on the university’s solicitation policy can be found in the Student Handbook (page 33).

How does the university educate students about freedom of speech?

The Board of Trustees has enacted a Policy Affirming Principles of Free Speech for Students and Faculty, which communicates the university’s commitment to freedom of speech.

Additionally, information is shared via email with every student, faculty member, and staff member to remind them that the university promotes and upholds the First Amendment and that the university has the responsibility for promoting freedom of speech on our campus. The email also links to the text of the Campus Free Speech Protection Act.

The message emphasizes that all students and faculty are free to state their own views about and contest the views expressed on campus, and to state their own views about and contest speakers who are invited to express their view on the campus, but that they may not substantially obstruct or otherwise substantially interfere with the freedom of others to express views they reject.