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Division of Student Affairs

Free Speech on Campus

How does the First Amendment right to free speech apply to speakers who have been invited by student groups to speak on campus?

As a public institution of higher education, Washington State University is committed to fostering free speech and the open debate of ideas. Washington State University is prohibited from banning or punishing an invited speaker based on the content or viewpoint of their speech. University policy permits student groups to invite speakers to campus, and the university provides access to certain campus venues for that purpose. Washington State University cannot take away that right or withdraw those resources based on the views of the invited speaker. Only under extraordinary circumstances, as described on this page, can an event featuring an invited speaker be canceled.

Once a student group has invited a speaker to campus, Washington State University will act reasonably to ensure that the speaker is able to safely and effectively address his or her audience, free from violence or disruption.

Although Washington State University cannot restrict or cancel the speech based on the content or viewpoint of the speech, the university is allowed to place certain content- and viewpoint-neutral limits on how the speech can take place. These limits can be based on the “time, place and manner” of the speech.

What are “time, place and manner” restrictions?

Courts have long recognized that public educational institutions have the right to impose certain restrictions on the use of their campuses for free-speech purposes. Content- and viewpoint-neutral restrictions on the times and modes of communication, often referred to as “time-place-manner” restrictions, are common features universities implement to ensure that they can continue to fulfill their mission while allowing free expression to occur. Simply put, this means that the “when, where and how” of free-speech activity may be reasonably regulated if such regulation (1) is scrupulously neutral (in other words, it must apply to all speech, no matter how favored or disfavored) and (2) leaves ample opportunity for speech in alternative areas or forums. The right to speak on campus is not a right to speak at any time, at any place and in any manner that a person wishes. The university can regulate where, when and how speech occurs to ensure the functioning of the campus and to achieve important goals, such as protecting public safety.

Examples of acceptable time-place-manner restrictions include permit requirements for outside speakers, notice periods, sponsorship requirements for outside speakers, limiting the duration and frequency of the speech and restricting speech during final-exam periods.

The need to consider time, place and manner regulations is the reason the university requires students to work with the administration when setting up certain events, as opposed to students scheduling and creating the events on their own without university input.

I want to hold an event on WSU’s campus. Whom should I contact?

You should contact the responsible administrator to request the use of the space. Please review the regulation governing Use of University Property for more information.

Note: Groups and individuals not affiliated with the university must be sponsored by a university group, student group or student in order to use space on Washington State University’s campus. A fee may be charged for the use of university space and any related security costs.

  • WSU Pullman: A list of spaces that can be reserved can be found on the WSU Scheduling Office website or by contacting the staff in WSU Student Involvement. Requests to reserve space must be submitted electronically to the responsible administrator. 

Can WSU cancel a student-sponsored event if the administration or the campus community disagrees with the speaker’s views?

No, WSU is prohibited from canceling an event based on the viewpoint of the speaker.

If it is known that an event with a speaker may lead to physical violence, is that legal grounds for the university to cancel the event?

In general, Washington State University cannot prevent speech on the grounds that 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 restraints of speech are almost never allowed.

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, an event can be canceled. Washington State University’s primary concern is to protect the safety of its students, faculty and staff. Local law enforcement agencies, and for WSU Pullman the Washington State University’s Pullman Police Department, make security assessments with input from federal, state and local law enforcement agencies.

How does WSU respond to hate speech?

WSU is dedicated to fostering free speech in an environment where members of our community can learn from one another and where all are treated with dignity and respect. The university vigorously opposes and denounces all forms of hateful speech. The university encourages faculty, staff and students to use their free-speech rights, consistent with federal and state laws, to condemn hateful speech and to help create opportunities for the campus community to understand and learn from these actions. Students who encounter hurtful or offensive speech are encouraged to make a report to the university’s Office of Compliance and Civil Rights. Students may also contact the Division of Student Affairs

How does WSU ensure the safety of the campus community in light of freedom of speech?

WSU balances its commitment to free speech with a commitment to safety. 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.