First Amendment Lesson Plan: Free Speech on College Campuses
Appropriate academic subjects
Suitable for classes in government and civics.
Focusing event or hypothetical
A student group at a public college invites a controversial speaker to appear on campus. The speaker (fictional name Ingemar Saff) advocates preserving Confederate monuments and statues in public places for their historical importance, though he denounces racism and white supremacy. The student group, the History Club, reserves space in a campus auditorium and advertises the event. Other student groups protest the invitation to the speaker, deeming him offensive, and demand that the speech be canceled. The History Club refuses.
Faculty are divided over whether to support the History Club on free-speech grounds, or to demand cancellation owing to the perceived repulsiveness of Saff’s views. Some allege that inviting Saff to speak would be a violation of the campus speech code.
Threats of violence begin to be reported on campus if Saff is allowed to appear. Students on both sides argue ferociously online, prompting accusations of intimidation and hate speech. Groups opposing Saff threaten to disrupt the event, preventing him from speaking, through violence if necessary.
What should the college administration do?
- Public colleges are bound by the First Amendment not to restrict campus speech on the basis of its content.
- Private colleges are not bound by the First Amendment, but may have policies stating a commitment to free expression on campus.
- Campus speech codes may restrict student and campus expression unconstitutionally.
- “Heckler’s veto” – shouting down a speaker
One class session.
Prepare students for the topic by assigning readings from the recommended list and/or from other sources. In class, present the hypothetical.
Lead a discussion on First Amendment principles to ensure grasp and understanding. Briefly review, from the readings, public vs. private colleges, campus speech codes, “heckler’s veto,” etc.
Invite students’ opinions on the hypothetical situation, specifically about what the college administration should do. Consider questions of free speech, civility, and security. Challenge arguments attempting to justify canceling a speaker because of security concerns. The points could be made that any threat of violence against mere speech is a disproportionate response, and that police are trained to prevent violence and should be ready and able to do so.
Ask for opinions to be justified, particularly in regard to First Amendment values of free speech and the open exchange of ideas.
Assign a short essay responding to the classroom discussion. Essays may involve any of the campus-related speech concepts. Essays should take a position and explain the relevance of First Amendment considerations to the arguments made.
Materials and readings
Reading: First Amendment Center – How free is student speech? By David L. Hudson Jr.
Reading: U.S. News – Penn State says white nationalist Richard Spencer not welcome
Reading: Washington Post – No, it’s not constitutional for the University of Oklahoma to expel students for racist speech, by Eugene Volokh
Reading: Student Press Law Center (SPLC) – Legal Analysis: How far can schools go in limiting student speech online? (especially the section on “College student speech”)
Reading: USA Today – Recommit to free speech on campus
Reading: FIRE – Rejecting the “heckler’s veto”
Video: Factual Feminist – Your freedom of speech on campus is under attack (time 5:14)
Video: FIRE – Changing Campus “Incivility” Policies: Q&A with Caitlin Grimes (time 4:50)
Reading: Foundation for Individual Rights in Education (FIRE) – State of the Law: Speech Codes, parts 1-IV
Resource: FIRE’s Speech Codes Database
Free Speech on Campus, by Erwin Chemerinsky and Howard Gillman. Yale University Press, 2017.
Free Speech on Campus, by Sigal R. Ben-Porath. University of Pennsylvania Press, 2017.
Rights of Students, 2nd ed., by David L. Hudson Jr. Chelsea Press, 2010.
Unsafe Space: The Crisis of Free Speech on Campus, 1st ed., Tom Slater, editor. Palgrave Macmillan, 2016.