FAQs

Freedom of Speech

Freedom of speech is the right of a person to articulate opinions and ideas, whether verbally or otherwise, without interference or retaliation from the government. The term “speech” constitutes expression that includes far more than just words and speech, but also what a person wears, reads, performs, displays, etc.

The First Amendment to the U.S. Constitution, as well as many state and federal laws, extend protections for speech activities that are among the strongest of any democracy, primarily because the law not only guarantees citizens’ rights to engage in free speech but also limits the government’s authority, including the authority of public institutions like UNC Charlotte, to restrict protected speech activities.  

The First Amendment protects a broad range of speech, including speech that may be considered deeply offensive or hateful. (See Hate Speech FAQ.)

Students, faculty, staff, invited guests, and visitors from the general public all have free speech rights on campus. Members of the university community have greater access to certain campus programs and activities and facilities to engage in protected speech activities than campus visitors.

Supreme Court law holds that public institutions like UNC Charlotte have discretion in regulating the “time, place, and manner” of speech on campus. The right to speak on campus is not a right to speak any time, at any place, and in any manner.  In the interest of sustaining its mission and functions, as well as protecting public safety, the university can regulate the "where, when, and how" of speech activity on campus.

Examples of acceptable time, place, and manner restrictions include notice periods, 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 that UNC Charlotte requires students and other groups to work with CRES when arranging their events.

The term “hate speech” does not have a legal definition in the United States, but it often refers to speech that insults or demeans a person or group of people on the basis of characteristics such as race, religion, ethnic origin, gender, sexual orientation, gender identity, or disability. While the university might not endorse or agree with speech of this kind, there is no “hate speech” exception to the First Amendment, and the university cannot lawfully restrict such speech unless it:

  1. falls into one of the unprotected speech categories described in the FAQ on unprotected speech;
  2. constitutes a material and substantial disruption or interference with university operations or other protected speech activities; or
  3. violates the University’s reasonable time, place, and manner restrictions 

As a campus, UNC Charlotte strives to be a community of inclusion and will often respond to reports of hateful speech with dialogue, education, and a show of support for individuals or groups targeted by hateful speech. While it is not the role of the institution to shield individuals from speech protected by the First Amendment, the university is committed to recognizing opportunities to provide education and to foster civil discourse among those with competing or conflicting points of view.   

The university encourages faculty, staff, and students to engage 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 reach out to the Dean of Students Office or to make a report to the university’s Bias Assessment Resource Team (BART). More information about reporting can be found on the BART website.

The U.S. Constitution guarantees freedom of speech by default, placing the burden on the government (in this case, UNC Charlotte) to demonstrate whether there are any circumstances that justify its limitation.

The First Amendment does not protect certain speech, such as:

  • True threats: Speech that a person reasonably would perceive as an immediate threat to his or her physical safety
  • Incitement of violence or lawless action: Speech that creates a substantial likelihood of imminent illegal activity and must be directed to causing imminent illegal activity
  • Fighting words: abusive words or phrases that: (1) inflict injury or are likely to provoke a violent reaction when directed at an ordinary person in a face-to-face confrontation, and (2) play no role in the expression of ideas.
  • Defamation: An intentional and false statement about an individual that is publicly communicated in written or spoken form and causes injury to the individual
  • Obscenity:  Speech that (1) appeals to the “prurient” interest in sex, (2) is patently offensive by community standards, and (3) lacks literary, scientific, or artistic value.
  • Unlawful harassment and discrimination:  Engaging in unwelcome conduct directed toward a particular person or identifiable group of persons based upon the target person’s actual or perceived race, color, religion, age, national origin, ethnicity, disability, or veteran status through any action, method, device, or means which is so severe or pervasive, and objectively offensive, that it unreasonably interferes with the target person's University employment, academic performance, or participation in University programs or activities, effectively denying equal access to University resources and opportunities (i.e., creates a hostile environment).
  • Invasion of privacy: Unjustifiable invasion of privacy or confidentiality not involving a matter of public concern.

Similarly, and  in accordance with UNC System Policy 1300.8, otherwise protected speech that violates the University’s reasonable time, place, and manner policies or that otherwise materially and substantially disrupts or interferes with University operations or with the free expression rights of others is not permitted by the University and may result in the imposition of discipline, as appropriate.

The University’s Code of Student Responsibility provides the following definitions for prohibited harassment:

Discriminatory Harassment/Intimidation – Engaging in unwelcome conduct directed toward a particular person or identifiable group of persons based upon the target person’s actual or perceived race, color, religion, age, national origin, ethnicity, disability, or veteran status through any action, method, device, or means which is so severe or pervasive, and objectively offensive, that it unreasonably interferes with the target person's University employment, academic performance, or participation in University programs or activities, effectively denying equal access to University resources and opportunities (i.e., creates a hostile environment).

Gender-Based Harassment – Engaging in unwelcome conduct based upon a target person’s actual or perceived gender, including harassment based on gender identity or non-conformity with gender stereotypes, which is so severe, persistent, or pervasive that it unreasonably interferes with a person's University employment, academic performance, or participation in University programs or activities (i.e., creates a hostile environment). Gender-Based Harassment does not necessarily involve conduct of a sexual nature, and it does not include Sexual Harassment, which is prohibited under Chapter 5, Paragraph p.5 of the Code.

Whether speech constitutes harassment is based on a variety of factors, such as how often the conduct occurs and the extent to which it is directed at a particular individual.  Students who feel that they may have been subjected to harassment are encouraged to reach out to the Dean of Students Office. Faculty and staff who may have been subjected to harassment are encouraged to reach out to their supervisors and/or the Office of Human Resources.  

The First Amendment does protect nonverbal expression, but does NOT protect the use of such forms of expression to directly threaten an individual.  It also does not protect vandalism or the destruction or defacing of property. Like other forms of speech on campus, posting and displaying flags, banners, and similar articles must adhere to the University’s reasonable time, place, and manner restrictions.

Conference, Reservations, and Events Services (CRES) handles scheduling for most events on campus.  For some facilities, particular units on campus may need to be contacted, such as Athletics or Academic Affairs. See University Policy 601.6, Scheduling University Facilities.

The Vice Chancellor for Institutional Integrity & General Counsel and the Associate Vice Chancellor for Legal Affairs & Deputy General Counsel are the University’s designated “Responsible Officers,” charged with ensuring compliance with the University’s free speech and expression policies and for answering any related questions or concerns, in accordance with UNC System Policy 1300.8.  Should you or your organization have any such questions or concerns, please contact the designated Responsible Officers.

Controversial speakers

In general, UNC Charlotte cannot prevent speech because it is likely to provoke a hostile response. Stopping speech before it occurs due to the anticipated reaction to the speech is often referred to by courts as the equivalent of a “heckler’s veto” and is a form of “prior restraint.” Prior restraints on speech activities are highly suspect and rarely deemed lawful by reviewing courts.

That said, the University’s primary concern is the safety of its students, faculty, and staff. UNC Charlotte Police & Public Safety makes security assessments with input from federal, state, and local law enforcement agencies whenever speech activities may pose a threat to public safety.  The University is required to do what it can to protect speakers and to prevent disruption or violence. If, however, there remains a serious threat to public safety and no reasonable alternative, an event maybe canceled.

The stated vision and values of UNC Charlotte promise a robust intellectual environment that values social and cultural diversity and free expression. As a public institution, UNC Charlotte must support both peaceful protest and the rights of individuals or groups to say or do things that some might find objectionable, or even hurtful. The university cannot make decisions or take actions based on the viewpoint or content of the speech. The university’s commitment to supporting free speech activities, however, does not constitute an endorsement of any specific speech at issue. 

Protests

Yes, the right to protest is protected by the First Amendment.  However, you may not infringe on the First Amendment rights of others and, therefore, may not effect a material and substantial disruption or substantial interference with another’s protected speech activity.  UNC Charlotte expects individuals who protest to do so in a peaceful and safe manner and recommends that individuals:

  • Avoid activity that infringes on the rights or safety of others, such as blocking and preventing the movement or access of others.
  • Follow the lawful instructions of a police officer or university official, such as staying behind barricades, dispersing from an area declared an unlawful assembly, and not resisting arrest. It is against the law to disobey a lawful order by a police officer.
  • Leave the area where others are engaging in illegal activities and acts of violence. Your presence may be interpreted as participating in a riot or illegal group action. Staying overnight in a campus building (other than your residence hall) after hours is prohibited.
  • Refrain from speech that incites others to commit acts of violence such as pushing, kicking or spitting on others, destruction of property or other unlawful actions. (Be mindful of what speech is not protected; see FAQ on unprotected speech.)
  • Make informed decisions. If you choose to engage in civil disobedience and get arrested, you should know the potential consequences. 

A "heckler's veto" is the silencing or disruption of another's speech by one's own speech or conduct.  In general, freedom of speech does not give someone the right  to prevent others from exercising their free speech rights. Free speech would be meaningless if no one could speak because others are allowed to shut down their speech. Those who engage in such behavior may face disciplinary action or, in some instances, criminal charges. Although a good way to protest another's speech is with more speech, that protest speech should not silence or disrupt the original speaker's speech. 

Free Speech Policies

Sustaining and promoting academic freedom are vital to the mission of the university. Both UNC System and UNC Charlotte policies govern academic freedom at UNC Charlotte:

Section 600 of The Code of the University of North Carolina provides:

  1. The University of North Carolina is dedicated to the transmission and advancement of knowledge and understanding. Academic freedom is essential to the achievement of these purposes.The University therefore supports and encourages freedom of inquiry for faculty members and students, to the end that they may responsibly pursue these goals through teaching, learning, research, discussion, and publication, free from internal or external restraints that would unreasonably restrict their academic endeavors.
  2. The University and each constituent institution shall protect faculty and students in their responsible exercise of the freedom to teach, to learn, and otherwise to seek and speak the truth.
  3. Faculty and students of the University of North Carolina shall share in the responsibility for maintaining an environment in which academic freedom flourishes and in which the rights of each member of the academic community are respected.

Section 601 of The Code of the University of North Carolina provides:

  1. It is the policy of the University of North Carolina to support and encourage full freedom, within the law, of inquiry, discourse, teaching, research, and publication for all members of the academic staffs of the constituent institutions. Members of the faculty are expected to recognize that accuracy, forthrightness, and dignity befit their association with the University and their position as men and women of learning. They should not represent themselves, without authorization, as spokespersons for the University of North Carolina or any of its constituent institutions.
  2. The University and its constituent institutions shall not penalize or discipline members of its faculties because of the exercise of academic freedom in the lawful pursuit of their respective areas of scholarly and professional interest and responsibility.

Chapter 2 of the UNC Charlotte Tenure Policies, Regulations, and Procedures (University Policy 102.13) provides:

The University of North Carolina at Charlotte endorses and supports the principles of academic freedom and responsibility of Faculty, as set forth in Sections 601 and 602 of The Code of the University of North Carolina.  UNC Charlotte supports and encourages full freedom, within the law, of inquiry, discourse, teaching, research, and publication for all members of its Faculty, to the end that they may responsibly pursue the transmission and advancement of knowledge and understanding free from internal or external restraints that would unreasonably restrict academic endeavors.  The University will protect Faculty Members in the responsible exercise of the freedom to teach, to learn, and otherwise to seek and speak the truth, and will not penalize or discipline members because of the exercise of academic freedom in the lawful pursuit of their respective areas of scholarly and professional interest and responsibility. 

Faculty Members share in the responsibility for maintaining an environment in which academic freedom flourishes and in which the rights of each member of the academic community are respected.  They are expected to recognize that accuracy, forthrightness and dignity befit their association with the University, and may not represent themselves, without authorization, as spokespersons for the University of North Carolina or any of its constituent institutions.

The university has compiled most free speech related policies on this Free Speech policies page. University Policies can also be found on the Office of Legal Affairs webpage.