General Questions

Below you'll find answers to a few of the common questions about free speech and free expression.

Montana State believes the welfare and strength of a university and of our society depend on the ability to engage in free expression and the search for meaning. To that end, MSU recognizes and protects full freedom of inquiry, teaching, research, discussion, study, publication and, for artists, the creation and exhibition of works of arts, without hindrance, restriction, equivocation or reprisal.

MSU’s policy on academic freedom ensures

  • freedom in research and the publication of results
  • freedom in the classroom in discussing the class subject
  • freedom from institutional censorship or discipline when faculty speak or write as citizens

These rights extend to other parts of campus life to include the right of a faculty members or students to speak on general educational questions or about the university administration and the operation of the university.

Academic freedom helps create a stimulating and challenging learning environment, and MSU encourages individuals to invite, not inhibit, discourse on ideas.

 

The First Amendment protects the right do dissent in many forms but not civil disobedience, which is not protected speech under the Constitution. By definition, civil disobedience refers to the refusal to obey laws or regulations by violating them.

Actions and speech in civil disobedience may conflict with the free speech rights enjoyed by others and may disrupt or interfere with university business and academic efforts, or even threaten public safety or university assets in ways that require the university or law enforcement to act to protect those other interests.

Examples of speech not protected by the First Amendment:

  • True threats, including speech and other conduct that communicates a serious intent to commit an act of unlawful violence to a particular individual or group of individuals.
  • Harassment, including speech and other conduct based on a protected class, targeted at an individual, that effectively denies educational access, opportunities, or rights.
  • Defamation, libel or slander (i.e. written or spoken false statements).
  • Incitement of illegal action.
  • Invasion of privacy and confidentiality, as protected by federal and state law.
  • Child pornography.

Not all offensive speech that you may feel harassed by truly constitutes “harassment.” Harassment is prohibited by university policy and is not protected by the First Amendment.

MSU policy prohibits discriminatory and sexual harassment. Discriminatory harassment is unwanted conduct that is based on a person’s status as a member of a protected class and which has the purpose of unreasonably interfering with their participation in a university program or activity. The factors considered when assessing whether conduct is discriminatory harassment include:

  • The identity of the parties, the nature of their relationship and the influence of that relationship on complainant’s employment or education.
  • The nature, scope, frequency and duration of the conduct.
  • The degree to which the conduct affected a student’s education or individual’s employment.
  • The nature of higher education.

Additional information about harassment, including sexual harassment, is available through the Office of Institutional Equity.

Hate speech is protected by the First Amendment. Hate crimes are not.

“Hate speech” is not defined by law and is not an exception to the First Amendment. Even if speech is hateful or offensive, it is still protected by the First Amendment. However, hate speech that involves illegal conduct is not protected by the First Amendment.

Hate crimes are not separate, distinct crimes. Classifying a crime as a hate crime depends on whether the offender was motivated by bias. For example, if a person assaults someone else, it’s a crime. If the facts of the case show that the assailant was motivated to commit the crime because of bias against the victim’s protected class status, the assault would also be classified as a hate crime.

  • Spoken word
  • Print
  • Internet
  • Social media
  • Radio
  • Television

Free speech on the internet and social media is entitled to the same level of protection as print and other media, as determined in Reno v. ACLU, 521U.S. 844 (1997).

Please note that social media websites require users to agree to certain terms and conditions for use of those sites, and those agreements may allow the sites to regulate speech posted there in ways they deem appropriate. Sites can and often do remove or hide social media statements that violate their terms of use.

Free Speech Scenarios

These are scenarios that are fairly common. While the advice here is tailored chiefly to students, it should be informative to faculty and staff as well. 

Is this speaker's message protected by the First Amendment?

Yes.

A public university like MSU is a space where free speech can occur. Nearly all speech, including speech that is annoying, rude and offensive, is protected by the First Amendment. Academic freedom also plays in, protecting freedom of inquiry and research, freedom of teaching and freedom of expression and publication.

Suggested actions

You can protest the speaker outside the building in a public area. You can use social media to protest and raise awareness about the speaker and your objections.

What can you not do?

You cannot disrupt the class or speaker. According to MSU's Code of Student Conduct, students and faculty share the responsibility for maintaining professional relationships based on mutual trust and civility.

Is this speaker's message protected by the First Amendment?

Yes.

A public university like MSU is a space where free speech can occur. Nearly all speech, including speech that is annoying, rude and offensive, is protected by the First Amendment. Academic freedom also plays in, protecting freedom of inquiry and research, freedom of teaching and freedom of expression and publication.

Suggested actions

Ignore them. Rebut them. Report it if you witness acts of hate, bias, discrimination or harassment.

What can you not do?

Do not touch any speaker, no matter how offensive they seem.

Suggested actions

  • Circulate a petition or letter voicing your concerns.
  • Request to meet with university officials to discuss your concerns.
  • Engage in peaceful protest in a public space.

What can you not do?

  • You may not engage in an occupation/sit-in of an office or other non-public space in a university building.
  • You may not block traffic into or out of a room, floor or building.
  • You may not obstruct or disrupt university staff or officials while they are fulfilling their duties.
  • You may not tag or mark MSU facilities with graffiti.

Is this protected by the First Amendment?

This can be complicated, depending on the context. Was the professor talking about a specific candidate or ballot issue or about politics in general? Are the comments connected to the class curriculum?

Under Montana law, public officers and public employees may not use public time, facilities, equipment, supplies, personnel or funds to solicit support for or opposition to any political committee, the nomination or election of any person to public office, or the passage of a ballot issue.

MSU's doors are open to everyone in the political spectrum, and its employees are expected to conduct themselves in ways that threat all political persuasions equally.

Suggested actions

Rebut the professor's points in a civil manner. Speak with the professor outside of class to voice your concerns, and report acts of hate, bias, discrimination or harassment.

What can you not do?

You cannot disrupt the class. According to MSU's Code of Student Conduct, students and faculty share the responsibility for maintaining professional relationships based on mutual trust and civility.

Is this protected by the First Amendment?

Yes.

A public university like MSU is a space where free speech can occur. Nearly all speech, including speech that is annoying, rude and offensive, is protected by the First Amendment.

Suggested actions

Ignore it. Rebut the message with a sign in your own window. Report it if you witness acts of hate, bias, discrimination or harassment.

What can you not do?

You cannot vandalize another's room or university property to express your message. You cannot target the room's occupant for harassment based on their political beliefs.

Questions about free speech and expression

Providing universal answers on issues of free speech and free expression is difficult. Often, the circumstances of each situation must be considered individually before any conclusions can be drawn. If you have questions about a free expression matter not covered on this site or about any of the policies summarized here, hesitate to reach out to the following people for help: