What is Free Speech?

From its inception, the University of Nevada, Las Vegas has worked to promote community well-being and individual achievement through education. Open engagement and discussion of ideas, experiences, and viewpoints prepare students to interact and thrive in an increasingly complex world. Freedom of speech is central to the open discussion and rigorous scholarly inquiry that moves our university forward.

UNLV believes in the value of all opinions and perspectives and supports that the answer to speech which a person disagrees with is more speech to engage and debate it. The First Amendment and the university are founded on the philosophy that everyone benefits in an environment where ideas can be expressed and responded to rather than being subject to a rigid, imposed belief system where those who deviate from it are punished. Freedom of speech serves as the very basis of and foundation for academic inquiry.

What the First Amendment Does and Does Not Protect

The First Amendment states that “Congress shall make no law abridging freedom of speech,” and protects all speech, including nonverbal or silent protest, symbolic and written messages, with limited exceptions. Among speech not protected are:

  • Obscenity (e.g. child pornography)
  • Defamation/libel
  • Illegal conduct including, but not limited to criminal threat, willful disturbance, unlawful assembly and refusal to disperse, vandalism, inciting illegal activity or provoking immediate violent reaction, trespass, or obstruction of a police officer.

The United States Courts website offers court rulings outlining specific actions that are and are not protected under the amendment.

Symbols and Symbolic Acts

Wonder if symbols like swastikas or symbolic acts like burning of flags constitutionally protected? It depends. The Supreme Court ruled in Texas v. Johnson (1989) that burning the American flag is protected speech. In Tinker v. Des Moines Independent Community School District (1969), the court ruled wearing black armbands to protest the Vietnam War was protected speech. However, the First Amendment does not protect the use of nonverbal symbols to directly threaten an individual or group, or encroach on or destroy property.

Controversial Speakers

How does the First Amendment right to free speech apply to “controversial” speakers who have been invited to UNLV or who have rented space on campus?

The Constitution prohibits any public institution or agency from banning or punishing speech based on its content or viewpoint unless it is prohibited by law (see “What the First Amendment and ‘Freedom of Speech’ Protect” above). University policy permits students and other members of the university community to invite guests and speakers to UNLV and provides access to its venues for that purpose. The university cannot rescind that right nor withdraw its resources based on the content or views of the invited speaker as doing so would violate First Amendment rights and the rights of whomever invited the speaker.

Once a speaker has been invited, the university is obligated to act reasonably to ensure the speaker is able to safely address the audience, free from disruption or violence. UNLV has discretion in its regulation of “time, place, and manner” of speech, meaning the university may set parameters, such as changes to venue, to ensure the university can successfully conduct its business operations and classes and effectively uphold public safety.

UNLV cannot cancel an event if the administration, faculty, staff, or the university community disagrees with the speaker’s views. This would violate First Amendment rights and the rights of whomever invited the speaker to campus. Only those who invited the speaker have the authority to rescind the invitation. The Supreme Court has made clear that public institutions like UNLV cannot prevent speech on the grounds that it may provoke a hostile response. Stopping speech before it occurs is called “prior restraint,” and prior restraints of speech are almost never permitted from a legal perspective. The safety of our students is our top priority and the university will take all available precautions to keep our UNLV community safe.

“Time, Place, and Manner” Restrictions

The Supreme Court has determined that public entities like UNLV have discretion in regulating the “time, place, and manner” of speech on their property. This essentially provides UNLV with the ability to set parameters for engaging in speech, including where and when it can take place, but not the content. Time, place, and manner parameters ensure the university can successfully conduct its business operations and classes and effectively uphold public safety.

Read UNLV’s Policy on Speech and Advocacy in Public Areas.

Hate Speech

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, gender, or different ability. There is no “hate speech” exception to the First Amendment. This speech is only illegal if it falls into the categories outlined above in “What the First Amendment Does and Does Not Protect.” In fact, on many occasions, the Supreme Court has explicitly held that prohibitions or punishments for “hate speech” violate the First Amendment.

Certain speakers have been known in the past to say things that single out individuals from underrepresented communities based on their identity, such as individuals who are transgender or undocumented. Such statements are still largely protected by the United States Constitution and the university cannot exclude speakers on this basis. While it is legally bound to permit such speakers to use public spaces on its campus, UNLV is deeply committed to fostering a university community where all members are supported, feel safe and thrive. UNLV is very proud to have earned the designations of a Title III & Title V Minority Serving Institution (MSI), a Hispanic Serving Institution (HSI), and an Asian American, Native American, and Pacific Islander Serving Institution from the U.S. Department of Education.