Freedom of Expression

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Freedom of Expression at UNCW

UNCW's Freedom of Expression website is a resource for the university community that contains helpful information, FAQs, policies, and other materials related to how UNCW creates and sustains an environment where freedom of speech and expression are supported and honored. This website is intended to assist the university community in understanding and upholding our commitment to a campus culture in which our differences are celebrated thoughtfully and respectfully. 

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Free Speech at UNCW


The University of North Carolina System is dedicated to the discovery, creation, transmission, and application of knowledge to address the needs of individuals and society. Carrying out this mission requires UNCW, as a UNC System constituent institution, to cultivate a campus environment in which our students, faculty, and staff are empowered to express competing ideas. We cannot benefit from each other's knowledge or rigorously test our own without open discussion and inquiry.

Consistent with this principle, the stated mission of UNCW promises a commitment to student engagement, creative inquiry, critical thinking, thoughtful expression, and responsible citizenship. To fulfill that promise, the university must support both peaceful protest and the rights of individuals or groups to say or do things that some might find objectionable, or even hurtful.

Our mission also promises a campus culture reflective of our values of diversity and globalization, ethics and integrity, and excellence and innovation. The Seahawk Respect Compact memorializes our aspirational commitment to actively promote inclusiveness, mutual respect, acceptance, and open-mindedness among students, faculty, staff and the broader community. Therefore, our First Amendment obligation not to restrict offensive and hateful speech does not mean such speech is worthy or welcome. UNCW reserves its right to publicly take a stand against words or acts of intolerance and promises to protect the speech of members of our community who choose to do the same.

This website contains information and resources related to how UNCW creates and sustains an environment where freedom of expression is supported and honored. If you have any questions about this website's contents, or about UNCW's policies related to free speech generally, please contact the university’s designated Free Speech Responsible Officer .

Laws


North Carolina Laws

Federal Laws

Frequently Asked Questions


Freedom of Expression

  • What is freedom of expression, and what does it protect?

    Freedom of expression is the right of a person to express opinions and ideas, and express themselves, whether verbally or otherwise, without interference or retaliation from the government. The term includes far more than just speaking, but also what a person wears, reads, performs, displays, and so on.

    The First Amendment to the U.S. Constitution, as well as many state and federal laws, extend protections for expressive activities that are among the strongest of any democracy, primarily because the law not only guarantees citizens' rights to engage in free expression but also limits the government's authority, including the authority of public institutions like UNCW, to restrict protected expressive activities. The First Amendment protects a broad range of speech and expression, including speech that may be considered deeply offensive or hateful.

  • Who has free expression rights on campus?

    Students, faculty, staff, invited guests, visitors, and persons acting on behalf of organizations all have free speech rights on campus. Members of the UNCW community have greater access to certain campus activities and facilities to engage in protected speech activities than campus visitors. Our policies explain these rights.

  • What are time, place, and manner restrictions?

    United States Supreme Court case law holds that public institutions like UNCW have discretion in regulating the “time, place, and manner” of speech on campus. The right to speak on campus is not a right to speak any time, at any place, and in any manner. In the interest of sustaining its mission and functions, as well as protecting public safety, the university can regulate the "where, when, and how" of speech activity on campus. Examples of acceptable time, place, and manner restrictions include notice periods, limiting the duration and frequency of the speech, and restricting speech at times when it would be disruptive to the academic or living environment (for example, no loud speech right outside a classroom building). The need to consider time, place, and manner restrictions is the reason that UNCW requires students and other external groups to work with Campus Life when arranging their events.

  • What is hate speech, and is it prohibited?

    The term "hate speech" does not have an accepted legal definition in the United States, but it often refers to speech that insults or demeans a person or group of people on the basis of characteristics such as race, religion, ethnic origin, gender, sexual orientation, gender identity, or disability. While UNCW would not endorse or agree with speech of this kind, there is no "hate speech" restriction in the First Amendment, and the university cannot lawfully restrict such speech unless it: (1) Also falls into one of the unprotected speech categories described in the FAQ on unprotected speech; (2) Constitutes a material and substantial disruption or interference with university operations or other protected speech activities; or (3) violates UNCW's reasonable time, place, and manner restrictions.

    UNCW strives to be a community of inclusion and seeks to encourage a community with robust speech delivered with civility. To foster this value, the university, for years, has lived by a Seahawk Respect Compact, which is an aspirational statement of how the community wishes to treat each other. When confronted with hateful speech, the university considers all legal approaches, including dialogue, education, and a show of support for those targeted by hateful speech. While it is not the role of the institution to shield individuals from speech protected by the First Amendment, the university is committed to providing education and fostering civil discourse among those with competing or conflicting points of view. UNCW encourages faculty, staff, and students to engage their free speech rights, consistent with federal and state laws, to condemn hateful speech and help create opportunities for the campus community to understand and learn from these actions. Students who encounter speech that they believe is hateful or threatening are encouraged to reach out to the Office of the Dean of Students.

  • What kind of expression is not protected under the First Amendment?

    The U.S. Constitution guarantees freedom of expression by default, placing the burden on the government (in this case, UNCW) to demonstrate whether there are any circumstances that justify its limitation. The First Amendment does not protect certain expression, such as:

    True threats: Speech that a person reasonably would perceive as an immediate threat to his or her physical safety

    Incitement of violence or lawless action: Speech that creates a substantial likelihood of imminent illegal activity and must be directed to causing imminent illegal activity

    Fighting words: Abusive words or phrases that: (1) inflict injury or are likely to provoke a violent reaction when directed at an ordinary person in a face-to-face confrontation, and (2) play no role in the expression of ideas

    Defamation: An intentional and false statement about an individual that is publicly communicated in written or spoken form and causes injury to the individual

    Obscenity: Speech that (1) appeals to the "prurient" interest in sex, (2) is patently offensive by community standards, and (3) lacks literary, scientific, or artistic value

    Unlawful harassment and discrimination:

    1. Quid pro quo harassment, which consists of unwelcome conduct based on a protected characteristic when:
      1. Submission to such conduct is made either explicitly or implicitly a term or condition of an individual's employment, employment decisions, academic standing or receipt of a needed or legitimately requested university service or benefit; or
      2. Submission to, or rejection of, such conduct by an individual is used as a basis for decisions affecting such individual in matters of employment, employment decisions, academic decisions (such as grades) or receipt of a needed or legitimately requested university service or benefit.
    2. Hostile environment harassment, which consists of unwelcome conduct based on a protected characteristic when:
      1. Such conduct is so severe, pervasive, and objectively offensive as to unreasonably interfere with an individual's work, academic performance, or living environment; or
      2. Such conduct is so severe, pervasive, and objectively offensive as to create an intimidating, hostile or offensive working, learning or living environment. Hostile environment harassment is determined by looking at all of the circumstances, including the frequency of the allegedly harassing conduct and a single, serious incident may be sufficient to constitute hostile environment harassment.

    Invasion of privacy: Unjustifiable invasion of privacy or confidentiality not involving a matter of public concern

    Similarly, and in accordance with UNC System Policy 1300.8, otherwise protected speech that violates the University's reasonable time, place, and manner policies or that materially and substantially disrupts or interferes with University operations or with the free expression rights of others is not permitted by the University and may result in the imposition of discipline, as appropriate.

  • What constitutes prohibited harassment?

    UNCW's policies provide the following definitions for prohibited harassment:

    Unlawful Harassment - can take the form of a variety of actions founded on one of the characteristics protected by federal law, state law or university policy, as listed in Policy 02.230 Equal Opportunity and Affirmative Action. Those protected characteristics include race, sex (such as gender, gender identity, marital status, and pregnancy), age, color, national origin (including ethnicity), religion, disability, sexual orientation, political affiliation, veteran status, military service member status, genetic information, or relationship to other university constituents - except where sex, age, or ability represent bona fide educational or occupational qualifications or where marital status is a statutorily established eligibility criterion for State funded employee benefit programs.

    Unlawful harassment is a form of discrimination and can consist of quid pro quo harassment or hostile environment harassment.

    Intimidation - is defined as implied threats or acts that cause a reasonable fear of harm in another and includes, but is not limited to, threatening to commit a harmful or sexual act upon another person, stalking, or cyber-stalking.

    Bullying - is repeated and/or severe aggressive behavior that is likely to intimidate or intentionally hurt, control or diminish another person, physically or mentally on the basis of actual or perceived membership in a protected class.

    Whether speech constitutes harassment is based on a variety of factors, such as how often the conduct occurs and the extent to which it is directed at a particular individual. Students who feel that they may have been subjected to harassment are encouraged to reach out to the Office of the Dean of Students. Faculty and staff who may have been subjected to harassment are encouraged to reach out to their supervisors and/or the Office of Human Resources, in accordance with Policy 02.205 Unlawful Discrimination, Harassment, and Sexual Misconduct.

  • What about nonverbal expression, such as the posting of symbols or displaying of flags?

    Like other forms of speech on campus, posting and displaying flags, banners, and similar articles must adhere to the University's reasonable time, place, and manner restrictions. Our policies explain these restrictions.

    Although the First Amendment does protect nonverbal expression, it does NOT protect the use of such forms of expression to directly threaten an individual. It also does not protect vandalism or the destruction or defacing of property.

  • Which office do I contact if I want to schedule an event on campus?

    Campus Life handles scheduling for most events on campus. For some facilities, particular units on campus may need to be contacted, such as Athletics or Academic Affairs. See Policy 02.140 Facilities Use.

  • Who do I contact with questions about freedom of expression?

    The General Counsel is the University's designated "Responsible Officer," charged with ensuring compliance with the University's free speech and expression policies and for answering any related questions or concerns, in accordance with UNC System Policy 1300.8. Should you or your organization have any such questions or concerns, please contact the Responsible Officer.

  • When does speech/expression become unlawful harassment?

    The precise legal standards for unlawful harassment vary depending on who the harasser and who the victim of the harasser are. In general, harassment refers to a severe, pervasive, and objectively offensive course of conduct directed at an individual and based on the individual’s protected characteristic(s), which unreasonably interfere with the individual’s work, academic performance, or living environment, or creates an intimidating, hostile or offensive working, learning or living environment. Hostile environment harassment is determined by looking at all of the circumstances, including the frequency of the allegedly harassing conduct and its severity. A single, serious incident may be sufficient to constitute hostile environment harassment.

    Students, faculty or staff who feel that they may have been subjected to harassment are encouraged to reach out to the Office of the Dean of Students (students) or the Office of Human Resources (employees). More information may be found in Policy 02.205 Unlawful Discrimination, Harassment, and Sexual Misconduct.

  • How do free expression rights apply to events at a public university like UNCW compared to events at private universities?

    The U.S. Constitution, and its protection of rights, applies only to the government. Public universities are required by the First Amendment to uphold the right to free speech. Because private schools are not government entities, those schools’ administrations may generally impose whatever restrictions they wish on campus speech (unless, for example, other state laws apply that protect free speech on private campuses).


Controversial Speakers

  • If there is a likelihood that an event with a controversial speaker may lead to violence, can the University cancel the event? Can it change the arrangements for the event?

    In general, UNCW cannot prevent speech because it is likely to provoke a hostile response. Stopping speech before it occurs due to the anticipated reaction to the speech is often referred to by courts as the equivalent of a "heckler's veto" and is a form of "prior restraint." Prior restraints on speech are highly suspect and rarely deemed lawful by reviewing courts. That said, the University's primary concern is the safety of its students, faculty, and staff. The University Police Department makes security assessments with input from federal, state, and local law enforcement agencies whenever speech activities may pose a threat to public safety. The University is required to do what it can to protect speakers and to prevent disruption or violence. If, however, there remains a serious threat to public safety and no reasonable alternative, an event may be canceled.

  • What if the views being shared by a speaker conflict with the express values of the University?

    The stated vision and values of UNCW promise a robust intellectual environment that values social and cultural diversity and free expression. As a public institution, UNCW must support both peaceful protest and the rights of individuals or groups to say or do things that some might find objectionable, or even hurtful. The university cannot make decisions or take actions based on the viewpoint or content of the speech. Just because UNCW supports free speech activities, however, does not mean it endorses or approves of the content of any specific speech at issue.


Protests

  • Am I allowed to protest an event or speaker on campus?

    Yes, the right to protest is protected by the First Amendment. However, you may not infringe on the First Amendment rights of others and, therefore, may not create a material and substantial disruption or substantial interference (as defined in UNC System Policy 1300.8) with another's protected speech activity. UNCW expects individuals who protest to do so in a peaceful and safe manner and recommends that individuals:

    Avoid activity that infringes on the rights or safety of others, such as blocking and preventing the movement or access of others.

    Follow the lawful instructions of a police officer or university official, such as staying behind barricades, dispersing from an area declared an unlawful assembly, and not resisting arrest. It is against the law to disobey a lawful order by a police officer.

    Leave the area where others are engaging in illegal activities and acts of violence. Your presence may be interpreted as participating in a riot or illegal group action. Staying overnight in a campus building (other than your residence hall) after hours is prohibited.

    Refrain from speech that incites others to commit acts of violence such as pushing, kicking or spitting on others, destruction of property or other unlawful actions. (Be mindful of what speech is not protected; see FAQ on unprotected speech.)

    Make informed decisions. If you choose to engage in civil disobedience with a goal of arrest you should know and understand all potential issues.

  • What is a "heckler's veto," and is it allowed?

    A "heckler's veto" is the silencing or disruption of another's speech by one's own speech or conduct. In general, freedom of speech does not give someone the right to prevent others from exercising their free speech rights. Free speech would be meaningless if no one could speak because others are allowed to shut down their speech. Those who engage in such behavior may face disciplinary action or, in some instances, criminal charges. Although a good way to protest another's speech is with more speech, that protest speech should not silence or disrupt the original speaker's speech.

    UNC System Policy 1300.8 prohibits behavior that qualifies as a "material and substantial disruption" or "substantial interference." In general, these behaviors include protests and demonstrations that materially infringe upon the rights of others to engage in and listen to expressive activity when the expressive activity (1) has been scheduled pursuant to relevant institutional policy, and (2) is located in a nonpublic forum.


Free Expression Policies

  • What are the university's policies about academic freedom?

    Sustaining and promoting academic freedom are vital to the mission of the university. Both UNC System and UNCW policies govern academic freedom at UNCW:

    Section 600 of The Code of the University of North Carolina provides:

    The University of North Carolina is dedicated to the transmission and advancement of knowledge and understanding. Academic freedom is essential to the achievement of these purposes. The University therefore supports and encourages freedom of inquiry for faculty members and students, to the end that they may responsibly pursue these goals through teaching, learning, research, discussion, and publication, free from internal or external restraints that would unreasonably restrict their academic endeavors. The University and each constituent institution shall protect faculty and students in their responsible exercise of the freedom to teach, to learn, and otherwise to seek and speak the truth. Faculty and students of the University of North Carolina shall share in the responsibility for maintaining an environment in which academic freedom flourishes and in which the rights of each member of the academic community are respected.

    Section 601 of The Code of the University of North Carolina provides:

    It is the policy of the University of North Carolina to support and encourage full freedom, within the law, of inquiry, discourse, teaching, research, and publication for all members of the academic staffs of the constituent institutions. Members of the faculty are expected to recognize that accuracy, forthrightness, and dignity befit their association with the University and their position as men and women of learning. They should not represent themselves, without authorization, as spokespersons for the University of North Carolina or any of its constituent institutions. The University and its constituent institutions shall not penalize or discipline members of its faculties because of the exercise of academic freedom in the lawful pursuit of their respective areas of scholarly and professional interest and responsibility.

    Chapter IV of the UNCW Faculty Handbook contains policies related to academic freedom, and provides:

    Article I: Freedom and Responsibility in the University Community

    1. The University of North Carolina Wilmington is dedicated to the transmission and advancement of knowledge and understanding. Academic Freedom is essential to the achievement of these purposes. This institution therefore supports and encourages freedom of inquiry for faculty members and students, to the end that they may responsibly pursue these goals through teaching, learning, research, discussion, and publication, free from internal or external restraints that would unreasonably restrict their academic endeavors.
    2. The University of North Carolina Wilmington shall protect faculty and students in their responsible exercise of the freedom to teach, to learn, and otherwise to seek and speak the truth.
    3. Faculty and students of this institution shall share in the responsibility for maintaining an environment in which academic freedom flourishes and in which the rights of each member of the academic community are respected.

    Article II: Academic Freedom and Responsibility of Faculty

    1. It is the policy of The University of North Carolina Wilmington to support and encourage full freedom, within the law, of inquiry, discourse, teaching, research, and publication for all members of the academic staff of this institution. Members of the faculty are expected to recognize that accuracy, forthrightness, and dignity befit their association with this institution and their position as men and women of learning. They should not represent themselves, without authorization, as spokespersons for The University of North Carolina Wilmington.
    2. The University of North Carolina Wilmington will neither penalize nor discipline members of the faculty because of the exercise of academic freedom in the lawful pursuit of their respective areas of scholarly and professional interest and responsibility.
  • Where can I find the policies related to free expression at UNCW?

    The university has compiled most free expression-related policies on the Free Expression site under the "Policies" tab. University Policies can also be found on the Official Policies webpage.

  • Where can students place posters, signs, and banners on campus?

    As explained in the Code of Student Life, posters, notices, and other posted signs must be placed on bulletin boards designated for that purpose, which are located throughout the campus. All bulletin boards or other means of posting materials are under the jurisdiction of the college, school, department or administrative office that maintains them, which may enforce size limitations for posted materials. Postings and signs must be dated with the day of posting and normally should not remain beyond 14 days. Postings should not be placed over existing postings; however, outdated material (over 14 days old) may be removed to make room for upcoming events or following final exam weeks.

    A sign may not be:

    • Attached to a shrub or plant; a tree; a permanent sign installed for another purpose; a fence or chain or its supporting structure; a brick, concrete or masonry structure; a sanctuary, monument or similar structure;
    • Posted on or adjacent to a fire hydrant; on or between a curb and sidewalk; or in a university building, except on the bulletin board as provided in Section VI-B-1 of the Code of Student Life; or
    • Placed on windshields of vehicles on campus.

    Permissible locations for posting banners are:

    • Fisher University Union - outside - north side poles; inside - designated locations
    • Fisher Student Center - designated locations inside
    • Chancellor's Walk - near the Social and Behavioral Sciences Building
    • Wagoner Dining Hall outside - west entrance poles; and
    • Residence Life Recreation Field - poles (near softball field).
    • In locations where poles are designated, the poles must be used.
    • Banners may not be hung on the water tower or clock tower.

    All banners must be approved by staff in the Campus Activities and Involvement Center or the Office of the Dean of Students. If banners are not properly approved, they will be taken down. Student organizations are responsible for removing banners within 24 hours after the event or after seven (7) days of posting, whichever comes first.

  • Can faculty and staff hang banners on campus? What about outside individuals or groups?

    Faculty and staff who wish to hang banners as a means for non-university expression (in other words, for reasons neither within their official capacities nor within the scope of their job duties) may do so if it (1) will occur in a permissible location (listed in Policy 02.350), (2) promotes an activity or event on campus for which space has been reserved, and (3) has been approved by Campus Life.

    Faculty, on behalf of their academic unit, may post or display temporary signage pertaining to academic events or other academic initiatives on the exteriors of appropriate academic buildings and surrounding grounds, upon approval of the relevant dean and in consultation with the Office of Facilities.

    Staff, on behalf of their administrative unit, may post or display temporary signage consistent with the respective missions of those offices, upon approval of the relevant vice chancellor or Cabinet member (or delegate), and in consultation with the Office of Facilities.

    Groups and individuals who are unaffiliated with UNCW and not otherwise sponsored by a campus unit/organization may hang banners and post other large signage on a temporary basis, subject to the conditions outlined in the first paragraph above.

    Alternatively, any such individual or group that has reserved time under Policy 02.340 Freedom of Expression By Non-University Sponsored Individuals or Groups may display signage/banners during that time in the reserved location.

    This policy is more fully explained in Policy 02.350 Banners, Posters, and Temporary Outdoor Signs (Non-University Sponsored Individuals or Groups).

  • May students petition and handbill in outdoor areas?

    Yes, as long UNCW's time, place, and manner restrictions are followed. Generally, the distribution of materials does not require advance registration, with the exception that Registered Student Organizations and other university-related groups should reserve a booth or table prior to distributing materials in or around any of the Campus Life facilities. Booths/tables can be reserved through the Campus Life Events and Reservations office. Individual students who wish to distribute materials that does not involve the use of a booth/table do not need prior approval.

    Distributors of materials must not obstruct traffic, harass or interfere with passersby, block entrances, disturb others with excessive noise, litter premises or disturb or interfere with academic or institutional activities.

    Publicly distributed materials shall not contain obscene, vulgar or libelous material, nor should any material be posted or distributed which contains information in violation of any federal, state or local law or seeks unauthorized solicitation. Distributed materials or information involving alcohol must be in accordance with the marketing practices described in University Policy 05.304, Statement of Principles Regarding the Marketing of Alcoholic Beverages (contained in the Code of Student Life ).

  • Is chalking permitted on campus?

    Yes! Chalking is permitted on campus concrete, horizontal sidewalks that are exposed to rain, and no pre-approval is needed. In fact, UNCW encourages chalking as a way to advertise your student organization events. Chalking is also permitted to express individual points of view. The Code of Student Life explains UNCW's rules about chalking, including that there be no obscene, or libelous messages.

  • What are the rules for hosting political candidates on campus?

    UNCW may host candidates for public appearances or debates. Single party appearances are permitted on campus provided they are sponsored by a registered student organization and all expenses related to the event, if any, are paid by the candidate, political organization, or student organization. Otherwise, university facilities may be used for political events in compliance with the University's Facilities Use Policy (02.140). Facilities and outdoor space may be reserved in accordance with the Code of Student Life, Section VI-1, Reserving Space.

  • Can candidates for political office (or their campaign representatives) hand out leaflets on campus?

    Candidates and members of the community who are not sponsored by a Registered Student Organization are permitted, with advance registration with the Office of the Dean of Students, to distribute materials in certain areas of campus. The distribution of materials must not interfere with the normal flow of passersby or cause litter. The individual will not be permitted to sell items, solicit funds, or use any means of sound amplification. A full explanation of rights and responsibilities is contained in Policy 02.340 Freedom of Expression by Non-University Sponsored Individuals or Groups.

Resources


UNC System: Campus Free Speech and Free Expression

American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) *

Foundation for Individual Rights in Education (FIRE) *

*NOTE: UNCW does not endorse or verify any information from any organization that is not affiliated with UNCW or the UNC System. The materials and information on external sites are for reference purposes only and should not be relied upon as legal advice from UNCW.

UNCW Freedom of Expression Workshop Facilitation

The Office of the Dean of Students (ODOS) will host 50-minute Freedom of Expression workshops for classes, organizations, departments, and small groups. Workshops are presented by Division of Student Affairs facilitators. Please use this form to request a Freedom of Expression workshop. Requests should be made a minimum of 2 weeks in advance of the earliest requested date. A member of the ODOS team will contact you to confirm your workshop date, time and location.

Contact Us Report a Concern »


John P. Scherer II General Counsel, UNCW Free Speech Responsible Officer John P. Scherer II
General Counsel, UNCW Free Speech Responsible Officer
schererj@uncw.edu
910-962-4027

The General Counsel is the University's designated "Responsible Officer," charged with ensuring compliance with the University's free speech and expression policies and for answering any related questions or concerns, in accordance with UNC System Policy 1300.8. Should you or your organization have any such questions or concerns, please contact the Responsible Officer.