What is protected speech?

The First Amendment to the US Constitution protects freedom of speech, including spoken and written speech, as well as symbolic speech and expressive activity. 

Do faculty, students, staff and visitors enjoy freedom of expression?

Yes.  The First Amendment, in conjunction with the Fourteenth Amendment, provides all members of the university community with freedom of speech, although it may be restricted in some contexts.

Is “hate speech” protected by the First Amendment?

Yes. The First Amendment protects speech that may be considered hateful, offensive, or inconsistent with the university’s values. The best response to speech the listener finds offensive is counter-speech.

Is there speech that is not protected by the First Amendment?

Yes.  The First Amendment does not protect obscenity, incitement or acts of violence, specific threats of physical violence or intimidation, incitement to break the law, the destruction of property, or harassment as defined by law and University policies.

Is defamation protected by the First Amendment?

Not necessarily.  While someone is “free” to make defamatory statements, there are separate state and federal laws under which defamation may lead to legal consequences.

Are trademarks and copyrights protected by the First Amendment?

No.  There are separate state and federal laws protecting intellectual property such as trademarks and copyrights.

Can the university limit protected speech activities?

Yes, but the limitations must be reasonable and not based on viewpoint or content.  The University of Iowa has authority to regulate the time, place, and manner of free speech and expressive activities to ensure health, safety and welfare, and to prevent disruption of university functions, including but not limited to classrooms, research labs, offices, museums, libraries, and pedestrian or vehicle traffic.

What is a “Public Forum”?

A public forum is a place that has a long-standing tradition of being used for, is historically associated with, or has been dedicated by government act to the free exercise of the right to speech and public debate and assembly. Streets, parks, and sidewalks are traditional public forums.

Does the University of Iowa regulate speech in outdoor spaces on campus?

Yes. In recognition of the healing environment that is essential to its clinical purposes, the areas outside University of Iowa Health Care facilities, including both stand-alone facilities and mixed-use facilities that are embedded within another facility, are not public forums.  The remaining areas of campus that are outside buildings and structures are considered public forums, open on the same terms to any person and subject to reasonable time, place, and manner restrictions.  Outdoor space policy is in Chapter 35 of the University Operations Manual.  

What rights do you have to express yourself in outdoor campus spaces?

University community members wishing to engage in noncommercial expressive activity in outdoor areas of campus are permitted to do so freely, subject to reasonable time, place, and manner restrictions, and as long as the conduct is lawful, does not impede access to a facility or use of walkways, interfere with vehicle traffic, or disrupt the functioning of the institution.

Is chalking permitted on campus sidewalks?

Yes, chalking is a means of expression and is permitted on campus sidewalks, subject to viewpoint-neutral time, place, and manner restrictions outlined in Chapter 35 the university Operations Manual. For example:

  • Use chalk that is water-soluble.
  • Chalk only on horizontal (flat) sidewalks that are open to the elements
  • Do not use chalk on any vertical surfaces or on non-sidewalk surfaces, both inside and outside.
  • Overwriting, erasing, defacing, or altering existing chalking is prohibited by anyone other than the person or organization who did the chalking.
  • Chalking which violates University of Iowa policy, state, or federal law, is prohibited.
  • Chalking is prohibited outside health care, veterinary medicine, and athletics facilities. Read the full policy for details. 
  • Commercial solicitation and advertising are not permitted.

Can I erase or chalk over messaging I find offensive?

No, erasing, overwriting, defacing, or altering existing chalking is prohibited by anyone other than the person or organization who did the chalking. Organizations or members of the campus community, including students, faculty, staff, affiliates, invited guests or visitors, who fail to comply with these expectations may be subject to discipline.

University facility and grounds personnel will clean and wash sidewalks, plazas, and other outdoor areas in the course of their usual and ordinary campus maintenance activities. Please review the full chalking policy here.

Are students allowed to distribute leaflets or handbills and canvass in outdoor areas?

Yes, these activities are all protected expression for students, as are carrying signs or placards by individuals, provided such activities are conducted legally and signs are carried, not affixed to the lawn, or ground.

It is important to note that no sign, banner, slogan, symbol, display, or other similar device may be painted, affixed, erected, or installed on campus grounds or buildings except as expressly approved by the University Events Committee, Facilities Management, or university administration. Chalking on campus sidewalks is allowed.

If I want to hold a demonstration, do I need to schedule it with the University of Iowa?

Spontaneous and unorganized outdoor demonstration activities may occur unscheduled so long as such activities occur without prior promotion, solicitation or purposeful attempt to attract or solicit the public.

Students may reserve outdoor space to host advertised/organized public demonstrations by consulting the University Operations Manual outdoor space policies. IMU Event Services and the University Events Committee may assist with scheduling and planning demonstrations.

Are there advantages to scheduling a demonstration ahead of time?

Applying to reserve and use a campus area is recommended if you are planning an expressive activity, because official approval accords benefits such as coordination with university departments, including arrangements for crowd control, parking, sanitation and restroom facilities, and provisions for protection of the health, safety, and security of persons and property. The University of Iowa will not deny an application for any reason that would contravene constitutionally protected rights of freedom of speech, expression, and assembly.

How does the First Amendment apply to speakers who are invited to campus by student organizations?

All speakers on campus are afforded the same First Amendment protection enjoyed by the University community, as well as the same time, place and manner restrictions and policy requirements.

If a speaker has created significant unrest or disturbances at other institutions does that allow the university to deny their ability to speak?

No. A past history of unrest does not necessarily mean violence will occur at a future event, nor does it provide grounds for the university to deny the speaker the ability to speak. Free speech anticipates that those who oppose a speaker’s message or viewpoint should have the ability to engage in counter speech, and the university will not engage in prior restraint.

If a speaker is known to target specific individuals or groups of people, based on protected characteristics, does that give the university legal grounds to cancel the event?

No. A speaker’s viewpoint is protected by the First Amendment. The university welcomes the exchange of strongly held views as part of the educational process, but does not endorse specific speakers or viewpoints.

Can you demonstrate or protest in response to a speaker?

Yes. The First Amendment protects not only the speakers’ right to express their viewpoints, but also the right of citizens to peacefully assemble in protest. However, counter protests must not disrupt or interfere with a speaker’s presentation. Counter protestors should follow University Event Committee policies to schedule outdoor counter demonstrations, and comply with federal, state, and local law, as well as university policies.

What is academic freedom and how does it align with freedom of speech?

University faculty are entitled to academic freedom to conduct research and publish the results.  Faculty further enjoy academic freedom in the classroom when discussing the course subject, but may not introduce into the teaching controversial matters that have no relation to the subject.

University faculty are entitled to the full protection of the First Amendment when speaking as private citizens, so long as they do not state, imply or infer that they are speaking on behalf of the university.

Can the university take action if someone posts offensive or false messages on social media?

It depends. The First Amendment protects freedom of speech, but it does have limits.  The university may take action if the speech constitutes obscenity, incitement of illegal acts or violence, specific threats of physical violence or intimidation, or violates the university’s policy on harassment. The university also may take action if the post violates a university trademark or copyright. The university also may respond with a banner, comment, or post of its own that clarifies the offending posts do not reflect information available to the university.   

Where do I report a concern regarding perceived threatening or harassing statements or videos posted on social media?

Please utilize the support and assistance section of this website to report concerns.  

I feel my free speech or free expression rights have been violated, how do I file a complaint?

Any member of the campus community who believes their right to free speech or expression has been violated may file a complaint with the Executive Director of the Board of Regents as outlined in the Board of Regents, State of Iowa, Policy 4.2, Freedom of Expression. You may also contact the UI Office of the Ombudsperson.