Frequently Asked Questions

The following frequently asked questions section is designed to be a helpful guide and is not intended to be a full summary of federal and state free speech laws.

Academic Freedom

"Academic freedom" is a concept concept within the higher education sector that supports the understanding that the free search for truth and its free exposition -- which includes the freedom to research and teach a range of topics, ideas and ideologies -- is a democratic right, and benefits us all. SDSU is committed to academic freedom and both encouraging and protecting artistic, scientific, literary and political speech. The American Association of University Professors provides additional information about academic freedom.

First Amendment, Protected and Unprotected Speech

The First Amendment protects various freedoms, including freedom of speech, assembly, petition, religion and press. The speech protections apply to written and spoken words as well as expressive conduct (i.e., actions that do not involve written or spoken words but do contain a message, such as art or gestures). But these protections apply only to activities regulated by the government, and the protections are not absolute. Governments are also concerned with the security of their citizens and borders, and with equal treatment of their citizens. In analyzing the application of the First Amendment, courts will consider the various security, equality and liberty interests involved.

The First Amendment does not prohibit any speech, but there are some types of speech for which there is no, or very limited, First Amendment protection. Unprotected speech may be regulated because of its content. Such speech includes but is not limited to the classifications below: 

  • Incitement of Imminent Lawless Behavior: Speech advocating for the use of force or lawbreaking where it is directed to inciting or producing imminent lawless action and is likely to incite or produce such action.
  • Fighting Words: Speech that tends to incite an immediate and violent response from an average person. As an important consideration, speech can not be restricted simply because some deem it to be upsetting or hurtful, and speaking generally about a topic that others may consider controversial or offensive typically will remain protected. The fighting words exception normally does not apply to speakers addressing a crowd on campus but may apply to speakers addressing specific individuals in the immediate area, no matter the size of the crowd (i.e., words directed to a person that are so abusive that they tend to incite an immediate physical retaliation).
  • True Threats: Speech meant to communicate a serious expression of an intent to commit an act of unlawful violence to an individual; speech that promotes and incites actual, immediate and imminent violence and harm (i.e., when a reasonable person would view the speech as a serious intent to harm and there is the prospect of immediate execution).
  • Harassment or Discrimination: Severe, pervasive and objectively offensive harassment that deprives the individual of equal access to resources.
  • Defamation: False statements of fact made about a person.  In cases concerning a public official or figure, the speaker must have acted with intent in making the false statement.  In certain cases, the party alleging defamation must show actual damages.
  • Obscenity: Speech depicts or describes sexual conduct in a patently offensive way and lacks literary, artistic, political or scientific value.
  • Child Pornography: Speech is considered child pornography when it visually depicts sexual conduct by children below a specific age. Such speech is distinct from obscenity due to the criminal nature.
  • Inappropriate Use of Public Resources: Use of public resources for partisan politics. 

These and other categories are interpreted very narrowly; most speech will still be considered protected under the First Amendment.

Yes. The First Amendment (and other “Bill of Rights” amendments) apply to state governmental entities through the Fourteenth Amendment, and through them to public colleges and universities like SDSU.  But just as the First Amendment freedoms are not absolute as against the U.S. government, they are not absolute in the state context either. The First Amendment does not require the university to provide a platform for speech, but if it does, then it cannot discriminate against speech on the basis of the speaker’s viewpoint.  In addition, SDSU can regulate conduct to minimize the impact to nearby instruction or ongoing operations through “time, place and manner” policies.

Some forms of bias, including hate crimes, discrimination, and harassment, are prohibited under law, SDSU conduct policies, and/or California State University system policy. While not all acts of bias are considered a crime or violate CSU policy, they may contribute to creating an intimidating or hostile environment for individuals and groups affected. Students, faculty and staff are encouraged to report all acts of bias, discrimination and harassment so that the university can take appropriate action. Always call 9-1-1 if you or someone you know is in danger. If it is not an emergency and you do not know where to turn, you can report issues by visiting Inclusive SDSU. The course of action taken by the university, including any resulting disciplinary penalty, will depend on the particular facts and circumstances involved and, given privacy and other restrictions, the university may not be able to share all information and outcomes with those who report issues.

A: Public universities, like SDSU, are permitted to enact “tTime, place and manner” policies, which are policies that regulate the time that speech may occur (e.g., limiting amplified sound to certain hours), the place that speech may occur (e.g., prohibiting demonstrations at the entrance to campus buildings), and the manner that speech may be made (e.g., limiting where signs can be posted). Also, and in support of free and open expression, the university maintains a Freedom of Expression Policy. The policy says SDSU can create “reasonable regulations” around speech and expression. 

This is the potentially unlawful suppression of particular speech due to an anticipated hostile audience reaction. Generally, action taken by the university to restrict protected speech must be based upon content-neutral factors, and the university may not prevent or stop speech based solely on how it believes the audience may or will respond. The First Amendment generally requires that the university take reasonable actions to ensure a hostile crowd does not prevent speech that may be deemed controversial, hurtful or unpopular.

Freedom of Expression

Public universities and colleges are allowed to enact restriction on free speech activities as detailed in the “time, place and manner” policy so long as those restrictions meet the following criteria:

  • They are viewpoint-neutral
  • The university coordinates the appropriate use of a location for speech activities
  • The restriction serves a significant government interest and is not more extensive than necessary
  • They leave open other channels for the communication of the information.

The SDSU policy on free expression can be found online at Freedom of Expression.

The SDSU time, place and manner policy can be found online at Regulations for Use of Campus Buildings and Grounds.

These are called “time, place and manner” policies because they regulate the time that speech may occur (e.g., limiting amplified sound to certain hours), the place that speech may occur (e.g., prohibiting demonstrations at the entrance to campus buildings), and the manner that speech may be made (e.g., limiting where signs can be posted).

The SDSU time/place/manner policies ensure that speech does not unreasonably disrupt or interfere with university business, violate the legal rights of other persons, obstruct ingress or egress of campus buildings or obstruct walkways, endanger the physical safety of the campus community, unreasonably pose risk of damage to university property or campus environment, or disrupt the expressive activity of another person or group acting in compliance with university policy.

Any violation of the Buildings and Grounds Regulations is enforceable by law as  codified in the California Education Code and Penal Code.

Hate Speech

There is no legal definition of “hate speech” and it is not a category of speech that the courts have held is an exception to the First Amendment.  In fact, the courts have made it clear that no one has a constitutional right to not be offended by speech.  For this reason, hate speech is as  protected as any other form of protected speech.  However, such speech may contribute to creating an intimidating or hostile environment for individuals and groups affected.

While people are free to engage in speech condemning any category of individual – whether on the basis of race, religion, national origin, ethnicity, sexual orientation, citizenship status, political party, ideology, hair style, or taste in music – this applies only to speech and expressive conduct, and does not protect an individual’s conduct simply because it is motivated by that person’s beliefs.  For example, hate crimes are regulated under both state and federal law.

The First Amendment is tested most severely when the person who is speaking is saying things that we find offensive or hateful, or that we disagree with.  Yet that speech is also protected because when the government has the right to suppress certain ideas, everyone is subject to censorship.

The better way to respond to hateful or offensive speech is to encourage more speech that exposes the offensive speech for what it is.  In one famous US Supreme Court case, Justice Brandeis wrote, “If there be time to expose through discussion the falsehoods and fallacies, to avert the evil by the processes of education, the remedy to be applied is more speech, not enforced silence.”  (Whitney v. California, 1927).  The ACLU agrees, and states on its website that “where racist, sexist and homophobic speech is concerned, the ACLU believes that more speech – not less – is the best revenge.  This is particularly true at universities, where the mission is to facilitate learning through open debate and study, and to enlighten.”


The Supreme Court has made it clear that a public institution, like SDSU, cannot prevent speech on the grounds that it is likely to provoke a hostile response. While the campus is constitutionally required and committed to supporting the protection of individuals and to prevent disruption or violence, if despite all efforts by the university there is a serious and imminent threat to public safety and no other alternative, an event or activity can be canceled based on the threat, not on the content of speech. The university’s primary and paramount responsibility is the safety of students, faculty and staff.  

Other Guidance


SDSU offers support and resources to students, faculty and staff whenever they need help. You should rely on the support services available to you, as teams are ready to consult with you and the appropriate officials, groups or organizations to address concerns in a manner consistent with university policies while respecting Freedom of Expression. SDSU may also host meetings between individuals and a dean or supervisor, sponsor debates or discussions on the topic, offer awareness programs and training sessions to the campus community, and support those who have been affected. It is also important to recognize that individuals may have residual feelings regarding an event that will happen well after the incident. The university offers a range fo resources to help students, faculty and staff. 

The university's Principles of Community serves as an aspirational statement similar to others at universities throughout California and the nation. The statement was developed through SDSU’s shared governance process, involving input from students, faculty, staff and administrators. Importantly, this is not university policy; the statement does not carry or impose any requirement. It does, however, call on each of us to reflect on our collective values and also encourages us to uphold those values when we teach, conduct research, work, socialize and come together in dialogue around difficult topics. Read the statement on the Principles of Community page.

You should never feel it is your responsibility to directly confront a person who has offended you. If you feel comfortable, you can explain your concerns to the offending person, tell them to stop the problematic behavior, and document the conversation in writing. Don't put yourself in danger.  If you feel threatened or unsafe in addressing the incident, trust your instincts and consider other avenues or resolution. If the behavior continues, you can report the issue to Inclusive SDSU or speak with the Dean of Students by calling 619-594-5211 or email [email protected], or the Office of the Student Ombudsman. Faculty and staff are encouraged to speak with their supervisors or the Center for Human Resources.