First Amendment Misconceptions

MYTH: On campus, protests and controversial speech must be limited to “free speech zones.”

TRUTH: Free speech zones are unconstitutional, according to the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education (FIRE). Restricting people’s speech to specific locations on campus effectively chills dissent and stymies political expression, the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) notes. Just as people are free to speak in public areas like parks and streets, the First Amendment also protects their right to speak out on college campuses.

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MYTH: Administrators can prevent student media from publishing unfavorable stories about their school.

TRUTH: Public college officials cannot censor a publication in an attempt to control its content, according to the Student Press Law Center. They also can’t retaliate against the outlet or associated students and faculty. In 1969, the Supreme Court’s Tinker v. Des Moines Independent Community School District decision affirmed that students and teachers don’t “shed their constitutional rights to freedom of speech or expression at the schoolhouse gate.”

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MYTH: The First Amendment does not protect hate speech. 

TRUTH: Under the First Amendment, even speech that is considered vile or offensive is indeed protected. Yet fewer than 6 in 10 Generation Z members believe that hate speech ought to be included, according to the Knight Foundation. However, former ACLU President Nadine Strossen argues that the best way to combat hate speech is through more speech, not censorship.

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MYTH: You can be fired or kicked out of school over something you said on social media.

TRUTH: Private employers can fire workers over their social media posts, but public universities cannot. The First Amendment protects professors’ ability to comment on matters of public concern on social media, and punishing educators over their posts is unconstitutional, according to FIRE. This year, the Supreme Court also ruled that public schools cannot punish students for social media posts made off-campus in a decision that could also have implications for universities. However, students cannot post threats or comment on the school’s social media with unlawful or obscene material, according to UNT’s code of student conduct and social media guidelines.

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MYTH: Freedom of choice is one of the First Amendment rights.

TRUTH: In a recent survey sent to University of North Texas students, a significant percentage of respondents believed that the First Amendment includes one’s “freedom of choice.” Rather, freedom of choice is linked with one’s “right to privacy” under the 14th Amendment, which was cited in the Roe v. Wade decision that found a woman can choose whether to have an abortion.

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