Statement on the First Amendment on campus

Editor’s note: This message was sent to on-campus students on Sept. 13, 2021.

The Lory Student Center Plaza has always been a space of activity, conversations, and the sharing of ideas. At times, the ideas have been celebratory, welcoming, affirming, and uplifting. Other times, the ideas have been offensive, racist, homophobic, and hurtful. The First Amendment of the United States Constitution has been discussed, interpreted, and debated for centuries. Although free speech is one of the bedrocks of our nation, it can be a difficult concept in practice. One issue that we constantly grapple with is how to ensure our students feel welcomed, affirmed and respected while upholding the laws that govern freedom of speech, including those that protect speech that may be offensive or wholeheartedly opposed to our personal and institutional values.

Sometimes we have missed the mark in communicating our responsibility as a state institution to uphold free speech rights. Too often, we may have talked more about our duty to protect offensive speech and less about what you can do to exercise your own free speech rights, the often-disproportionate impacts of free speech on individuals holding marginalized identities, and how our Principles of Community call for us to care for one another.

As evidenced by the #CallOutCSU, free speech works both ways. Your voice is vital, just as valuable and can be used equally as effectively. For example, if a speaker whose ideology is opposed to yours comes on campus, the university cannot legally disinvite the speaker, but you can invite your own speaker, host a counter program, or peacefully protest. We encourage you to learn how to challenge, advocate, demonstrate, disagree and object to unpopular opinions in a way that moves public discourse forward. These critical skills are vital for democratic life and essential to the collective growth of our society. We also encourage you to care for one another, reach out to individuals who may be harmed by the offensive and hurtful speech.

For our part, while the law may guide us in what we, as an administration, can do to curtail offensive speech, we will always use our own university platforms to condemn speech that is not reflective of our institutional values. We recognize that what is legally permissible for the university to do sometimes doesn’t feel like enough. As a state institution, we are essentially legally prevented from punishing, suspending or expelling students who say or write something many of us find insulting, derogatory and disrespectful. Still, we promise you this – we will always do what is within the letter of the law to assert and affirm our own standards and disavow any speech that does not conform to our Principles of Community.

Finally, we want to acknowledge that speech hurts. The adage that sticks and stones may break my bones, but words will never hurt me, is simply not true. Negative and mean things that people say can cause real pain and mental anguish. We have resources available for those students who are impacted by hurtful words. For more information about available resources, go to the Student Affairs student support list online. And any time you experience or witness an incidence of bias, you can always submit a Bias Report online.