Free Speech & Advocacy


How to Protest and Use Your Free Speech Rights

Chico State values freedom of expression as both a cornerstone of a democratic society and essential to the educational process. The First Amendment ensures your right to speak out—and that others have an equal right to counter speech. Universities have a special obligation not only to tolerate but also to encourage and support the free expression of ideas, values, and opinions, even where they are hateful, offensive, or not aligned with institutional values.

Whether you’d like to speak out as an individual, protest as part of a group, or engage in a counterprotest, there are a few things to know.

Free Speech Defined

Freedom of speech is the right of a person to articulate opinions and ideas without interference or retaliation from the government. Expression—whether on its own or as counter speech—may take a variety of forms, such as speeches, signs, written materials, clothing, public assemblies, parades, demonstrations, and artistic representation.

Free Speech Exceptions

Courts at all levels almost always side with protecting free expression. However, there are a few limited exceptions.

  • True or credible threats—speech that a person reasonably would consider a threat to their physical safety or that of others
  • Promotion of actual or imminent violence, harm, vandalism, or illegal activity
  • “Fighting words”—speech that directly invites or is likely to produce an immediate violent reaction
  • Defamation—false written or verbal statements of fact that harm another’s reputation
  • Obscenity—speech that depicts or describes patently offensive hard-core sexual conduct, and lacks serious literary, artistic, political, or scientific value.

Particularly, in a college environment, harassment is also prohibited when aimed at an individual on the basis of a protected characteristic (race, gender, sexual orientation, religion) and that also meets one of these three criteria:

  1. Is pervasive and severe
  2. Is a direct or implied threat to employment or education
  3. Creates an intimidating, hostile and demeaning environment

For example, a person using a slur one time is likely to not fall in this category, but someone using slurs on a daily basis might be. 

Most “Hate Speech” is Free Speech

The United States has no Constitutional exception for “hate speech,” often defined as speech that insults or demeans a person or group on the basis of race, religion, ethnic origin, sexual orientation, disability, or gender. While Chico State condemns such expression, it is allowable by the First Amendment, and any prohibitions or punishments for hateful speech are almost always struck down in court. Learn about the difference between hate incidents and hate crimes, which can be reported to law enforcement.

Free Speech Is Allowed Almost Anywhere on Campus

You can engage in speech almost anywhere at Chico State, as it is a public campus. However, all residential areas of campus are not public venues, and neither are the Bell Memorial Union, its nearby plazas and sidewalks, and the Wildcat Recreation Center, all of which are operated by the Associated Students. Sidewalks surrounding University property are the purview of the City of Chico. In the classroom, free speech is protected as long as it is relevant to the course and does not disrupt the educational environment.

Your Right to Protest

Chico State encourages both freedom of expression and counter expression, as long as it is done safely and does not interfere with University functions, imperil public safety, or obstruct or damage University facilities. 

Protest Exceptions

You must adhere to the First Amendment, the Student Code of Conduct, and all local, state, and federal laws. You cannot:

  • interfere with another person’s speech, verbally or visually. For example, you can’t use a megaphone to drown them out.
  • engage in physical altercations
  • incite or participate in violence or vandalism
  • block movement or access of others
  • ignore instructions from University Police Department, campus Free Speech Ambassadors, and other administrators.

Limits to Time, Place, and Manner  

The University may impose reasonable time, place, and manner restrictions on the exercise of the right of expression to preserve the safe and primary operations of the campus. For example, you cannot impede pedestrian traffic for safety reasons or use amplified sound outdoors in some locations and during certain hours because it disrupts classes.

Report Safety or Free Speech Violation

If safety is threatened, contact 9-1-1 or University Police Department at 530-898-5555. Otherwise, notify Student Life and Leadership at 530-898-5396 or in BMU 220. If a protest turns violent, conducts illegal activities, or makes you uncomfortable, you are encouraged to leave.