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Managing the Speakers and the Stage: Best Practices for Free Expression on Campus

Last Friday, as a preamble to their violent marches and rallies in Charlottesville, VA, neo-Nazis descended upon the University of Virginia.  Carrying torches, around 300 individuals marched through the heart of the UVA campus and towards the Rotunda, the venerable center of the university.  While surrounding the statute of Thomas Jefferson, violence broke out and a number of students, faculty, and staff were injured.

The incident is a reminder that colleges need to be prepared.  Some universities find it difficult to balance campus free expression with maintaining the safety and security, physical or otherwise, of their community members.  The following are examples of “Best Practices” that HMBR has identified to serve institutions seeking to manage the stage and the speakers on it.  Note: Although most private colleges have statements affirming free speech rights on their campuses, the following best practices are applicable at public institutions and do not necessarily reflect the guidance we would provide to private institutions.

  • Make Your Commitments Clear

Having a firm free expression statement demonstrates that your institution is committed to free speech, student expression, and an environment that fosters the free exchange of ideas in the pursuit of academic truth.  The statement should acknowledge your institution’s awareness of, and sensitivity to, at-risk communities and communities that could potentially be targeted by controversial speakers. The college should also make clear its commitment to holding students accountable when expression turns into behavior that violates the student code of conduct and endangers the safety of the college community.

  • The Impartial Referee

Restrictions placed upon the content of a speech are almost always struck down by the courts.  It is important that, when it comes to attempting to regulate speech on campus, the college remains viewpoint neutral.  This does not mean that the college cannot set ground rules for groups and individuals invited to speak on campus.  Acting like a referee allows the college to set reasonable restrictions on expression, as long as both sides are held to the same standard.   The areas where the college should always remain content neutral include: time, place, and manner restrictions; access to campus facilities, such as lecture halls or theatres; and event security or facility rental costs.

  • Relationships Can Foster Creative Solutions

Establishing an environment of civility on campus begins with building relationships across a number of college communities.  Campus administrators should have working relationships with student leaders—such as student government associations, student groups associated with political parties, etc.—long before a group invites a controversial speaker to campus.  These relationships can foster alternative, less provocative courses of action that can still allow the student organizations to achieve their legitimate goals while lowering the temperature of the community.

  • Having a Plan

After the incident at UVA, the university president remarked that she was grateful that UVA had an emergency plan, drilled mock disasters in the past, and that they were ready when the time came to put the plan into action.  Beyond an emergency plan, however, the college should have clearly articulated, step-by-step, viewpoint-neutral processes for student organizations to bring speakers onto campus.  Training incoming student leaders in these processes and making sure that they understand the required procedures can save the administration many headaches in the future.  Even if the neo-Nazis at UVA were not an invited group, these practices can be bulwarks against unwanted, but invited, speakers and provide opportunities for alternative arrangements to be proposed.

  • Logistics Are Key

Choosing the venue for the speaker is a significant detail that can sometimes be overlooked.  A large room, away from dormitories, health facilities, or classrooms and with easy access in and out, is often the best option.   It is important to consider potential contingencies as well, such as accommodating larger than expected audiences, giving space for the presence of protestors, and making sure emergency personnel have easy access to the facility should the unthinkable happen.

  • First Duty Should Be Safety

Perhaps the most important part of the administration’s duty to their students, and the college community at large, is to provide a safe learning environment for all.  Sometimes, that environment can be compromised and the college should be prepared.  Law enforcement should be relied upon for security judgments, but it is almost always better to err on the side of protecting the health and safety of the college community.

  • The Antidote to Bad Speech: More Speech

Having legal, effective, and non-disciplinary responses to offensive speech can often be the best answer to these controversial events.  However, it is important not to mischaracterize otherwise protected speech as actionable conduct.  Despite some misgivings about offensive speech, the college is not required to provide an “offense-free” environment.  On the other hand, colleges have successfully organized counter-events when offensive speakers are brought on campus.  Concurrent events or alternative presentations can provide students with opportunities to counter the hateful rhetoric that they oppose, while granting them a forum to express their own opinions as well.


As the UVA president said afterwards, the neo-Nazis marching on campus was a nightmare scenario and one, hopefully, most college administrators will never face.  But if a college is committed to creating an environment of free expression for all, there are best practices that the college can employ to ensure free expression is guaranteed in a safe, welcoming, and academically vibrant community.

  Aug 15, 2017  |  By    |   On Education