Freedom of speech in learning institutions

Freedom of speech in learning institutions


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Institutional Affiliation


Freedom of speech in learning institutions


The United States Constitution safeguards freedom of speech for all citizens. According to the First Amendment, Congress is not obliged to make laws that abridge the freedom of expression or that of the press. However, guaranteeing absolute freedom of speech is challenging as the concept is aimed at creating a peaceful society rather than havoc. Therefore, some kinds of speech may be constrained by law in some circumstances. For instance, the First Amendment to the U.S. Constitution does not protect obscenity, child pornography or speech that is comprised of fighting words.  This paper responds to the proposals recommended by the Working Group (WG) in Syracuse University regarding harassing speech before drawing a conclusion.

Understanding Legal Perspectives on Offensive or Harassing Speech in the Universities

The United States Constitution ensures that are citizens access freedom of expression. This includes students and staffs who attend learning institution in the U.S.  Specifically, the law does not allow constraining of freedom of speech of the students by the school administration. However, the law constrains the freedom of speech that is considered harmful to some magnitude.  Likewise, the school administration has the mandate to restrict freedom of speech if the intentions override the primary goals of a learning institution that is to provide education. However, drawing a line on what exactly is protected speech regarding offensive or harassing speech can be challenging.

Critically analyzing the Working Group proposals regarding the harassing speech, their implementation may give a long lasting solution to the issues concerning freedom of speech at Syracuse University. The harassing speech covers not only words and their interpretation by the receiver, but also the intention of the speaker. According to the WG proposals, the group recommends protection of a mere offensive speech by the university administration. This correlates with the First Amendment to the United States Constitution that protects the use particular offensive words or phrases while conveying a political message. Such protection can be observed in the Cohen v. California case 403 in 1971. The court ruled that the defendant did not threaten or attempted to engage in an act of violence. In the case, the defendant was sued for wearing a jacket that had paintings of the phrase “F- the draft”. According to the United States Constitution, freedom of speech is safeguarded to an extension of the way the speaker chooses to convey his/her message.

The proposed definition of harassing speech by the Working Group also correlates with that of the United States Constitution. The group perceives harassing speech in the platforms such as physical, written, graphic, electronic or verbal.  According to the federal laws, harassing speech is considered illegal if it poses the direct threat towards people or has the intention of hurting the listener or probing them to cause harm. In this context, the Working Group viewpoints acknowledge the magnitude of harassing speech based on the intended audience, the context, intention and the wording of the message.  For instance, a statement that is so severe, pervasive and offensive interfering with the capacity of an individual to realize expected benefits in the University is considered harassing and unprotected. However, it is notable that the definition of harassing speech as proposed by the Working Group only to the speeches directed to a particular individual or individuals.  In this context, the Working Group appears to recommend that the university administration to protect offensive speech that is directed to groups. The group defends this proposal on the ground of permitting an exchange of ideas where the other groups are supposed to respond via another speech.  However, despite the approach appearing viable regarding students’ enlightenment, it may end up being harmful in the long run. For instance, if the two opposing sides end up in a stalemate, it may trigger inappropriate behaviors such as violence.  From this perspective, the school administration may opt to curtail freedom of speech to some level. The United States federal laws acknowledge such a scenario. For instance, according to the First Amendment to the United States Constitution, the law does not protect freedom of speech in a situation where students make an obscene speech at an event sponsored by a learning institution. This can be observed in the case involving Bethel School District v. Fraser in 1986. The court affirmed that making an obscene speech in a school-sponsored event might be harmful to the welfare of other individuals in a learning institution.


In a recap, freedom of speech remains a controversial topic not only at school level, but also at the national level. Drawing a line concerning the protection of freedom of speech specifically harassing speech can be challenging as the paper reveals. However, the Working Group proposals may provide a long lasting solution to the Freedom of speech issues raised at Syracuse University. Answering an offensive speech with speech is a noble idea and will support the exchange of ideas. However, the administration has the mandate to ensure that obscene statements are not made at a school sponsored event. In other words, freedom of expression should yield positive results rather than negative outcomes.

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