Frequently Asked Questions

Freedom of Expression

The First Amendment to the U.S. Constitution protects free expression. What does that mean?

The First Amendment protects speech as well as expressive activities. The First Amendment protects expressive activities such as plays, satire, flag burning, political cartoons, protest armbands, political buttons and slogans on T-shirts. The First Amendment also protects the ability of employees to speak as private citizens on matters of public concern.

Does the First Amendment protect all speech and expression?

No. There are several exceptions, including but not limited to:
  1. True Threats – Statements where the speaker means to communicate a serious expression of an intent to commit an unlawful act of violence to a particular individual or group of individuals;
  2. Fighting Words - Words directed to an individual that actually tend to provoke immediate violent reaction;
  3. Obscenity (including child pornography) -Speech or materials may be deemed obscene (and therefore unprotected) if it meets the following definition: It (1) appeals to the “prurient” interest in sex, (2) is patently offensive by community standards and (3) lacks literary, scientific or artistic value.
  4. Incitement - The U.S. Supreme Court has determined 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. See Ohio Revised Code 2917.01
  5. Defamation- An intentional and false statement about an individual that is publicly communicated in written (called “libel”) or spoken (called “slander”) form, causing injury to the individual.

Does the First Amendment protect “ hate speech”?

Hate speech has no precise legal definition, although the term typically refers to speech that insults or demeans a person or group of people based on attributes such as race, religion, ethnic origin, sexual orientation, disability or gender.

The United States Supreme Court recently stated in Matal v. Tam, 528 U.S.__ (2017) 

“We have said time and again that the public expression of ideas may not be prohibited merely because the ideas are themselves offensive to some of their hearers . . . Speech that demeans on the basis of race, ethnicity, gender, religion, age, disability, or any other similar ground is hateful; but the proudest boast of our free speech jurisprudence is that we protect the freedom to express the thought that we hate.”

The offensive nature of the speech, in itself, is not “one of the recognized categories of unprotected speech.”  As the 6th Circuit noted in Bible Believers v. Wayne County, Mich., 805 F.3d 228 at 243 (6th Cir. 2015).  

“First Amendment . . . protection applies to loathsome and unpopular speech with the same force as it does to speech that is celebrated and widely accepted.  The protection would be unnecessary if it only served to safeguard the majority views.  In fact, it is the minority view, including expressive behavior that is deemed distasteful and highly offensive to the vast majority of people, that most often needs protection under the First Amendment.  See, e.g., Nat’l Socialist Party of Am. v. Vill. of Skokie, 432 U.S. 43, 43–44 (1977) (recognizing First Amendment rights of Neo Nazis seeking to march with swastikas and to distribute racist and anti-Semitic propaganda in a predominantly Jewish community);            

Although the First Amendment protects hate speech, Miami University condemns hate speech in the strongest possible terms. Hate speech is wholly inconsistent with our values of diversity, equity and inclusive excellence. While we respect a person’s right to free speech, as an academic and intellectual community, we must stand united against those who attempt to elevate themselves by degrading others, and must reject bigotry, racism, slurs, and hate speech.

In addition, the First Amendment does not protect illegal acts. So if an illegal act (e.g.  physical assaults) is motivated by an individual’s bias or hate, the “hate crime” may be punishable under Ohio and/or federal criminal laws.

What are “Time Place and Manner” regulations?

Public universities like Miami, have the authority to regulate the use of campus property for expressive purposes based on the time, place and manner of the activities as long as the regulations are content and viewpoint neutral.

What are Miami’s time, place and manner regulations?

Do students need to schedule a protest demonstration or march?

No. Students may protest and march in outdoor areas of campus without scheduling or permission. However, students should understand that the Use of University Property  gives priority to previously scheduled events. The Policy also prohibits activities that would materially and substantially disrupt University teaching, research, or administrative functions.

Do Non-Students have the same rights in the outdoor areas of campus?

No. Visitors are free to walk through our campuses; however, authorization is required from the University or from a recognized student organization to make speeches or presentations, to erect displays, to engage in any commercial activity, or to conduct similar activities on University-owned or University-controlled property.

Persons not employed or enrolled as students who wish to demonstrate, circulate petitions or distribute materials on University property may do so only on the perimeter sidewalks designated by the University and must comply with the rules applicable to faculty, staff and student demonstrations.

  1. Public Speaking, Leaflet Distribution, and Demonstrations
  2. Persona Non-Grata
  3. Use of Public Areas of Buildings and Grounds

What other restrictions does Miami place on expressive activities in outdoor spaces?

University policy restricts the use of amplified sound, the installation of temporary structures, and the deposit of unattended literature. It also imposes many common-sense safety measures, for example, restrictions on outdoor camping and campfires. Additionally, scheduled events in outdoor spaces may require approvals to ensure sanitation and safety and the orderly operation of university business. 

Use of University Property

How does the First Amendment apply to speakers who are invited to campus to speak?

Speakers on campus, including controversial speakers who have been invited by student groups, are afforded the full protections of the First Amendment. The events for those speakers, however, are subject to the University’s’ policies. In administering those policies, the University does not consider the substance of the speaker’s viewpoint. The controversial nature of the speaker is immaterial—speech cannot be restricted based upon whether the University agrees or disagrees with a speaker’s viewpoint.

If it is anticipated that hosting a speaker will lead to physical violence on campus, will the University cancel the event?

In general, Miami University cannot prevent speech because it is likely to provoke a hostile response. Stopping speech before it occurs due to the potential reaction to the speech is often referred to by courts as the “heckler’s veto” and is a form of “prior restraint.” Prior restraint of speech is almost never permitted.

Courts have clarified that a recent history of unrest does not necessarily mean that violence will occur at a future event, nor does it provide grounds for the University to deny the speaker the ability to speak. The courts have recognized that free speech can be imperiled if those who oppose a speaker’s message can prevent the speech from occurring. Instead of denying a controversial speaker the ability to speak, free speech anticipates that those who oppose a speaker should have the ability to engage in counter speech.

The University is required to do what it can to protect speakers and prevent disruption or violence. Although the University is committed to fulfilling these obligations, if despite all efforts by the University there is a serious threat to public safety and no other alternative  such as moving an event can sufficiently address the threat, an event may be rescheduled or canceled.

Do controversial speakers or expressive activities pay more for campus security at events?

No. The content of a speaker’s message is not considered when determining how to assess costs for an event. The University makes every effort to ensure that costs associated with an event are consistently applied for all events, regardless of whether the event speaker’s viewpoints are controversial or will possibly draw protests. With respect to security costs, the Miami University Police Department (MUPD) employs a matrix to determine the safety needs of a particular event. The matrix takes into account the location of the event and the anticipated crowd size, but it does not impose higher costs because the university agrees or disagrees with the speaker’s message. If MUPD or other campus officials determine that a particular event will require extra security measures or staffing, then the University will work with the event's organizer to provide for safety and security.

There are different locations on campus and there may be different rental rates. For example, renting out Millet Auditorium may have different fees than renting out Alumni Hall or a room in the Armstrong Student Center. Fees are determined in accordance with the standard rates of the location, and do not take into account the viewpoints of a speaker. Event organizers requiring special facility arrangements, such as audio-visual equipment or special staffing, may be charged fees in accordance with standard rate for these requests.

Certain speakers are known to insult people or entire groups of people based on their race, gender, sexual orientation or other protected class status. Can that be the basis for the University cancelling the speaker?

No. The First Amendment protects a speaker regardless of their viewpoint. Of course, other legal principles may apply. For example, if the speech is directed at an individual and meets the legal definition of a true threat then such speech is not protected.

Can I protest a controversial speaker?

Yes. Just as the First Amendment protects a speaker’s right to express their views, it also protects the right of individuals to assemble peaceably in protest. However, a protest that causes material disruption or violence is not protected. The University strongly encourages protestors to follow the lawful instructions of police officers or University officials working in connection with an event. This may include directions to prevent destruction of property or crowd dispersal where it is necessary to preserve public safety.

As described above, reasonable time, place or manner regulations apply to protest activity. It is important to read and understand the University’s policies and procedures with respect to Use of University Property. These regulations are designed to prevent disruption of the University’s educational mission and to safeguard the security of the campus community.

Lastly, University policy —such as the Code of Student Conduct— may apply to protester activity depending on the circumstances. For example, protestor conduct that causes serious disruption or incites others to commit violence or property destruction may have disciplinary and legal consequences.

Can protesters “shout down” or heckle a speaker?

No. No one can engage in conduct that materially and substantially disrupts the speaker by engaging in violent behavior, physically blocking or using threats of violence to prevent any person from attending or listening to another’s expressive activity if it occurs in a campus space reserved for the exclusive use or control of a particular group or in an otherwise lawful meeting, gathering or procession.

The 6th Circuit U.S. Court of Appeals (the circuit in which Miami University is located) has expressly rejected the notion that speech can be suppressed or punished merely because of the likely reaction of the listeners. 

If the speaker’s message does not fall in one of the recognized categories of unprotected speech, the message does not lose its protection under the First Amendment due to the lawless reaction of those who hear it.  Simply stated, the First Amendment does not permit a heckler’s veto.” Bible Believers v. Wayne County, Mich., 805 F.3d 228 at 252 (6th Cir. 2015).

Can I turn my back on a speaker in protest?

Yes. However, blocking the aisles, entrances, or exits is not permitted.

Can a protest spontaneously take over a roadway or block traffic?

No. Protected speech does not include activities that block the movement of traffic or pedestrians, prevents access to a building or space, disrupts the use of a space for its intended purpose, or disrupts University activities. Engaging in such activities could lead to an arrest.

Can my group hold a rally/protest/march inside a campus building?

No. As described above, reasonable time, place or manner regulations apply to protests. It is important to read and understand the University’s policies and procedures with respect to Use of University Property.

The Code of Student Conduct may apply to protest activity depending on the circumstances. For example, actions that cause serious disruption or incites others to commit violence or property destruction may have disciplinary and legal consequences.

What is Miami’s policy if I feel harassed by expressive activities?

Ohio Revised Code 3345.0212 requires each public university in Ohio to adopt a policy on harassment that applies to all students, student groups, and employees and adheres strictly to the definition of harassment in section 3345.0122 of the Ohio Revised Code.

The University believes that the right of expression is as necessary as the right of inquiry and that both must be preserved as essential to the pursuit and dissemination of knowledge and truth.  However, the University’s commitment to freedom of expression does not extend to harassment. Harassment, for the purposes of this policy, is defined as conduct and/or expression that is:

  1. Not protected by the First Amendment to the United States Constitution or Article I of the Ohio Constitution;
  2. Unwelcome; and,
  3. So severe, pervasive, and objectively offensive that it effectively denies an individual equal access to the individual's education program or activity.

Expression (either in person, in writing or by telecommunication) must meet all three elements to be actionable under this policy. This policy applies to alleged harassment that takes place on University property (owned, leased, or controlled premises), at University- sponsored events, and in connection with a University-recognized program or activity.

Some harassment that violates this policy may also rise to the level of a crime (e.g.  A true threat, child pornography) and should be reported to the Miami University Police Department.

Students should report alleged violations of this policy to the Office of the Dean of Students.

Faculty and staff should report alleged violations of this policy to the appropriate personnel department.

This policy shall not be construed to impair any right or activity, including speech, protest, or assembly protected by the U.S. Constitution.

Nothing within this policy shall be interpreted as preventing Miami University from restricting expressive activities that the First Amendment of the U.S. Constitution or Article I, Sections 3 and 11 of the Ohio Constitution does not protect.

Further nothing in this policy shall be interpreted as restricting or impairing the University’s obligations under federal law including, but not limited to, Title IV of the Higher Education Act of 1965, Title VI of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, Title IX of the Education Amendments of 1972, Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act of 1973, Title II of the Americans With Disabilities Act, Age Discrimination in Employment Act and the Age Discrimination Act of 1975 as addressed through its non-discrimination and Title IX policies.

What if I feel threatened by speech or expressive activities?

Individuals who threaten or commit acts of violence or other violations of law may be subject to arrest and prosecution by law enforcement, as well as disciplinary sanctions imposed by the University. The University cannot punish speech or expressive activities protected by the First Amendment and conducted in accordance with the University’s Time, Place and Manner policies.

Are the concepts of free speech and academic freedom the same?

No, they are related but different. Both have been addressed by courts for well over a century. Any attempt at a description would be inadequate. 

One fundamental difference that distinguishes academic freedom from general freedom of expression is the concept of and search for the truth, and the disciplinary bounds in which scholarship occurs. Academic freedom, in general terms, is the right afforded to those who teach and research to create and disseminate knowledge and seek truth as they know it, subject to the standards of their disciplines. Academic freedom also protects the rights of students to pursue their studies and to formulate their own opinions on the matters being taught, subject to the academic requirements within a particular program of study or course.

Principles of Academic Freedom

What protections does academic freedom provide for those who teach and research?

Institutions of higher education are conducted for the common good and not to further the interest of any particular individual or the institution as a whole. The common good depends upon the free search for truth. Academic freedom is essential to these purposes and applies to both teaching and research. Freedom in research is fundamental to the advancement of truth. Academic freedom in teaching is fundamental for the protection of the rights of the teacher in teaching and of the student to freedom in learning. 

Academic freedom requires that faculty members be free from direct or indirect pressures in an attempt to influence their work in a manner that would conflict with professional standards of the field. The University does not impose such pressures or influence and resists such pressures or interference when exerted from outside the University.

Principles of Academic Freedom

What responsibilities does academic freedom place on those who teach or conduct research?

As teachers, professors encourage the free pursuit of learning in students. Teachers exemplify the best scholarly standards of their disciplines. They demonstrate respect for students as individuals, and adhere to their proper roles as intellectual guides and counselors. Professors make every reasonable effort to foster honest academic conduct and to assure that their evaluations of students reflect students’ true merit. Faculty members respect the confidential nature of the relationship between professor and student. They avoid any exploitation of students for their private advantage and acknowledge significant assistance from them. Professors protect their academic freedom.

As colleagues, professors have obligations that derive from common membership in the community of scholars. They respect and defend the free inquiry of their associates. In the exchange of criticism and ideas they show due respect for the opinions of others. They acknowledge their academic debts and strive to be objective in their professional judgment of colleagues. Professors accept their share of faculty responsibilities for the governance of their institution.

Professional Ethics and Responsibilities

What rights and responsibilities do those who teach and conduct research have when they speak as private citizens on matters of public concern?

As members of the community, professors have the rights and obligations of any citizen. They measure the urgency of these obligations in the light of their responsibilities to their subject, to their students, to the profession, and to the institution. When they speak or act as private individuals they avoid creating the impression that they speak or act for the college or university. As citizens engaged in a profession that depends upon freedom for its health and integrity, professors have a particular obligation to promote conditions of free inquiry and to further public understanding of academic freedom.”

Professional Ethics and Responsibilities

Where can I go to learn more about free speech and expression on college and university campuses?

Who can I talk to if I have concerns about free speech and expression?

Students should contact the Office of the Dean of Students and employees should contact the Office of General Counsel.