Free expression is a core value at UWM. As a public university, UWM must constantly balance the right of free speech on campus with ensuring that we are caring for all students in our community. This tension is not easy, and it’s unavoidable. Hearing and reading other points of view is a key ingredient of academic freedom and central to learning.
Free speech and free expression
UWM, as a public university, has several areas on its campuses that serve as public forums. The “public” aspect of our university matters: With very few exceptions, the First Amendment to the U.S. Constitution prohibits any level of government, including public universities, from regulating or sanctioning speech based on its content or a speaker’s particular viewpoint. Access to UWM facilities is regulated with content-neutral policies and guidelines.
UWM generally cannot regulate speech based on its content or the viewpoint of a speaker, but it may regulate speech based on the time, place and manner in which that speech occurs. For example, UWM can restrict a protest on Spaights Plaza if it disrupts campus activities, as long as that type of restriction applies equally to all individuals and groups.
UWM also can regulate the access or use of specific areas under state law, for example, the private office of a faculty member, unless invited.
Even though the First Amendment uses the word speech, the U.S. Supreme Court has held that it protects a wide variety of expression. This includes what is known as “pure speech,” meaning the spoken word. The First Amendment also protects expression that is written and expression that is typed and published. It protects symbolic speech (like wearing a shirt that bears the Confederate flag) or expressive conduct (like burning a flag), and it protects speech plus conduct (like peaceably assembling to engage in protests and boycotts). However, destructive acts (like vandalism of property) are not protected.
Hate speech may be offensive and hurtful; however, it is generally protected by the First Amendment. Learn more about hate speech in this FAQ.
The so-called heckler’s veto — shouting down or drowning out another person who is speaking on campus — is a disruption and is considered misconduct. Read more on state law and policies related to misconduct in Chapter UWS 17 and Chapter UWS 18.
The University of Wisconsin System is committed to academic freedom and the freedom of expression: “Each institution in the University of Wisconsin System has a solemn responsibility not only to promote lively and fearless exploration, deliberation, and debate of ideas, but also to protect those freedoms when others attempt to restrict them.” Read the full UW System policy.
Narrow exceptions to First Amendment protection
There are a limited number of narrow exceptions to what the First Amendment protects. This includes situations where immediate violence is provoked, someone is unduly intimidated or falsehoods are spread about someone else. They include the following categories: