Does the First Amendment apply to public universities?

The U.S. Supreme Court has long held that the First Amendment’s freedom of speech tenets fully apply to public universities. In Healy v. James (1972), the Supreme Court declared that “the precedents of this Court leave no room for the view that…First Amendment protections should apply with less force on college campuses than in the community at large.” The Supreme Court proclaimed in Healy that “[t]he college classroom with its surrounding environs is peculiarly the ‘marketplace of ideas.’” All educational institutions that receive federal funds are required annually to educate students of their constitutional rights and the legal framework that guarantees those rights.

On a large and diverse university campus, it is inevitable that you will encounter ideas with which you disagree or that you find offensive. However, as explained in the Chicago Statement, a university has a “commitment to free, robust, and uninhibited debate and deliberation among all members of the University’s community.” Disagreement during discussion is often a productive part of the learning process.

Civil discussions are often the most constructive ones, and UWM promotes civility in its classroom activities and planned events. However, uncivil expression receives a level of protection under the First Amendment as well, and public universities must tolerate this type of speech. Otherwise, calls for civility may be used to censor certain ideas, a precedent that would significantly endanger non-majority viewpoints and stifle intellectual candor. As the Supreme Court reasoned in Terminiello v. Chicago (1949), “a function of free speech under our system of government is to invite dispute.”