Free Speech and First Amendment Rights
Free Speech Statement
Los Rios Community College District is committed to ensuring that all persons may exercise their constitutionally protected rights of free expressions, speech, and assembly.
The time, place, and manner of exercising the constitutionally-protected rights of free expression, speech, and assembly are subject to Los Rios Community College District policies and practice. They shall provide for non-interference with college functions and reasonable protection to persons against practices that would make them involuntary audiences or place them in reasonable fear for their personal safety, as determined by the college.
First Amendment Protections
The First Amendment to the US Constitution protects speech and expressive conduct from censorship by the government based upon its content. Examples include:
- Gathering to protest
- Handing out information and leaflets or displaying photographs
- Holding up signs
- Burning a flag in protest
There are very limited exceptions to this protection. Los Rios Community College District is part of the government and may not censor speech based on its content.
What's Not Protected
Unprotected speech generally falls into four categories:
Defamation is false statements of fact about someone that tend to injure them or their reputation. Defamation is known as "libel" if written and "slander" if spoken. Persons who defame others can be sued for damages, but rarely can be halted from speaking.
Fighting words are those words which by their very utterance inflict injury or tend to incite an immediate breach of the peace. They are personally abusive words which, when addressed to the ordinary person, are, as a matter of common knowledge, inherently likely to provoke violent reaction.
Incitement to violence are words that are intentionally directed by the speaker to provoke a crowd to immediately carry out violent and unlawful action and is likely to produce that action. Examples of this type of speech include:
- Challenging another to fight in a public place.
- Use of offensive words in a public place which are inherently likely to provoke an immediate violent reaction (also known as "fighting words").
- Inciting illegal violent activity.
- Calling upon a crowd to immediately burn down a building or vandalize a car.
True threats encompass those statements where the speaker intends to communicate a serious expression of an intent to commit an act of unlawful violence to a particular individual or group of individuals. The speaker need not actually intend to carry out the threat. Rather, a prohibition on true threats protects people from the fear of violence and from the disruption that fear engenders, in addition to protecting people from the possibility that the threatened violence will occur. The threat must be, on its face and under the circumstances in which it is made, so unequivocal, unconditional, immediate, and specific as to cause the person threatened to reasonably fear for their own safety or the safety of their immediate family. Examples of true threats include:
- Hanging a noose on a college campus for the express purpose of terrorizing particularized members of the campus community with the knowledge that it is a symbol representing a threat to life.
- Burning a cross with an intent to intimidate any person or group.
Obscenity is a legal standard that is difficult to meet and is rarely a basis to censor speech. An example of obscenity is child pornography.
The following conduct is generally not free speech and may be disciplined or halted:
- Willful disturbance of any lawful meeting (must substantially impair the meeting by intentional conduct in violation of implicit or explicit rules for the meeting that the violator knew or should have known)
- Obstruction of a police officer in the lawful exercise of their duties
- Unlawful assembly and refusal to disperse
- Vandalism and defacing someone else's property
- Disturbance by loud and unreasonable noise
Frequently Asked Questions
Protests and civil disobedience have played an historic role on college and university campuses, bringing important and beneficial changes within society, and in the development of our democracy.
However, actions of civil disobedience themselves are not protected speech under the Constitution (for example trespassing on private property to speak). The Constitution does not guarantee the right to engage in civil disobedience without consequences.
Civil disobedience may have a negative effect on the protected interests of others and may interfere with college business or threaten public safety or college assets in ways that require Los Rios Community College District to act to protect those other interests.
Why do campus-centered groups need a permit through facilities/operations to set up a table but outside groups do not?
There are many reasons that submitting an event for approval from facilities/operations is a valuable process, including the fact that planned events or tabling will take precedence should an unscheduled group come to campus.
If you reserve a space, then you have first right to that space and the outside group would be required to move. By going through the process you can also request campus-provided tables, chairs, stage, sound equipment, and other event components that are not available to people that do not go through the facilities process.
A public college cannot allow some groups to set up on campus and not allow others based on their message. The First Amendment to the Constitution protects speech – no matter how offensive some may consider the content.
Restrictions on speech by public colleges and universities based on the message is unlawful government censorship and violates the First Amendment of the Constitution. Such restrictions deprive people of their right to invite speech they wish to hear, debate speech with which they disagree, and protest speech they find bigoted or offensive. An open society depends on educated citizens, and the whole enterprise of education and this country is founded on the principle of free speech. It is important to note that efforts to restrict speech by certain groups – though often well-intended – have historically disenfranchised marginalized groups.
When groups who have messages that may be construed as offensive let us know they plan to be on campus, we make every effort to communicate with our college community well in advance. Unfortunately, they are not required to provide such notice and it doesn’t always happen.
Physical signs are a kind of speech. As a result, we can only limit signs that include unprotected speech. Restricting the content or size of signs can amount to censorship. As long as the signs don't interfere with the educational environment by blocking walkways, getting in the way of college operations, and so on, Los Rios Community College District has limited ability to censor how big or small a sign is.
People in public areas have no reasonable expectation of privacy. As a result, individuals or groups may film or photograph persons in those areas without their express consent. As members of a college campus community, the guardians of minors that are on campus for classes or other activities have acknowledged that the minor may see or hear content that wouldn't be allowed in a closed setting, such as at a high school.
Bystanders have the right to record free speech groups on campus as well. If you are concerned that a free speech group is overstepping legal bounds and you want to share evidence of that behavior to authorities, then you are within your rights to record their activities.
A permit must be approved by the Operations department for outdoor use of amplified sound. Amplified sound is inherently disruptive to the educational environment, which is why permits are required. Permits will not be approved if the sound may interfere with classes, the orderly administration of the Los Rios Community College District, or reasonably disturb Los Rios Community College District operations or community residents. The level of sound must be limited to reach only the immediate audience.
Can administrators restrict where individuals or groups exercise their free speech rights on campus, such as within a free speech zone?
By law and district policy, the outside areas of our campuses are public forums – like streets, parks, or town squares – where the protection of speech is at its highest. In a way, our entire campuses are free speech zones.
Some colleges have tried to implement free speech zones on campuses and those determinations have not stood up to legal challenges and have subjected the offending colleges to paying significant damages and attorneys' fees to the protesters.
Restricting the speech of one group or individual jeopardizes everyone's rights because the same laws or regulations must be applied equally to everyone, including visitors, students, faculty, and staff.
It depends. The First Amendment protects a person's right to ask for money in the context of an expressive campaign. A college cannot allow for some clubs and organizations to ask for money and not others.
If the college has to examine what a sign reads or what a person says to determine whether it is allowed, then this type of restriction is probably not within the constitutional limits.
Anyone can avail themselves of their first amendment rights, including our employees on their own time.
You may not counter-protest as an employee of the district and you should make clear that you are acting as a citizen when engaging in counter-protest activities. Some free speech groups – particularly those sharing intentionally provocative material – are hoping to incite a strong reaction, so that they may obtain media coverage, and maybe even file a lawsuit.
If your goal is to have less of this type of behavior on our campuses, then the best course of action is simply to ignore them.