Frequently Asked Questions
What is the First Amendment?
The First Amendment to the United States Constitution states: “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the Government for a redress of grievances.”
Freedom of expression (including speech, and association) is protected by the First Amendment. The First Amendment gives people the right to express their opinions and ideas without fearing that the government will interfere with that right or retaliate against the speaker. The government can place some limits on the “time, place, and manner” in which ideas are expressed, but the government cannot restrict speech because of the ideas or point of view that the speaker is expressing. As a public college, PCC is considered part of the “government,” and must abide by the First Amendment and the laws regarding freedom of expression. So, for instance, even though PCC’s policies strongly support diversity and inclusion, PCC cannot prohibit students or others from expressing views that may be contrary to these values. PCC can use, and is committed to using, the college’s platform and voice consistent with our college’s values and to promote diverse, inclusive spaces.
The Oregon Constitution also protects freedom of expression.
Why is freedom of speech important?
Freedom of speech is one of the most important foundations of our democracy. Because of the First Amendment, the government cannot shut down ideas that it disagrees with, and this allows people to share ideas and thoughts – even those that are critical of the government – without fear of retaliation or other negative consequences.
However, freedom of speech also means that we will be exposed to ideas that we disagree with, and that we may find offensive or hateful. We have the right to express our own views in response. There is more information about that below.
Does the First Amendment only cover speech, or does it protect other kinds of expression?
The First Amendment refers to “speech” but the law protects many types of expression, including written words, petitions, dress, performance, forms of protest, membership in social and political groups, and other ways of expressing opinions and ideas.
What is PCC’s obligation to protect freedom of speech?
PCC is a public college, and must comply with the First Amendment. The Oregon Constitution also provides protection for free expression. PCC’s policies and procedures comply with these laws. This means, for instance, that PCC cannot prohibit speech only because that speech offends members of the PCC community or does not reflect PCC’s stated values. Because PCC must comply with the First Amendment, all employees while performing work for the college must act in ways that do not violate the First Amendment.
Is PCC allowed to put restrictions on speech?
Freedom of speech does not mean that anyone can say anything they want in any manner and at any time on PCC’s campuses. The law allows PCC to establish “time, place, and manner” restrictions on speech. This means that PCC can impose rules about where and when speech occurs. For instance, PCC’s policies establish that only certain areas on each campus are available for free expression during regular campus hours. PCC’s policies also state that speech cannot disrupt classrooms or offices. Similarly, PCC policies provide that speech cannot cause a substantial disruption on campus, interfere with the ability of students and others to walk freely around campus, or create a risk to public safety. All members of the PCC community have to comply with PCC’s policies; the First Amendment does not give students or other members of our community the right to violate PCC’s policies or rules.
What types of speech are not protected under the law?
The law does not protect all speech. These are some examples of speech that is not protected:
- Speech that is a “true threat,” meaning that the speech would put a reasonable person in fear of that person’s immediate physical safety (such as yelling threatening words at a specific person) or creating an immediate risk of danger.
- Speech that incites the violation of law or policy (such as advocating the immediate use of violence).
- Speech that violates PCC’s policies, including the Nondiscrimination and Non-harassment Policy, the Standards of Professional Conduct for PCC Employees, and the Student Code of Conduct.
- Speech that is obscene.
- Speech that constitutes defamation under the law (“defamatory” statements are essentially untruthful statements about another person that injure that person’s reputation).
Does PCC have to allow speech that is offensive to members of our community or contrary to PCC’s values? Why?
Under the First Amendment, PCC cannot restrict ideas that it does not agree with or that members of our community find offensive. PCC understands that it can be painful and upsetting to have to hear ideas that are offensive or hateful, and PCC has many resources for members of our community who are impacted by offensive or hateful expression. Some members of our community understandably would prefer that PCC stop the expression of offensive or hateful ideas. However, history shows that it is much more dangerous to have the government or school be able to stop the ideas that people want to express. PCC will continue to express its values as a college, and we encourage all members of our community to do the same in a respectful manner.
What can I do about speech that I don’t agree with?
Every member of the PCC community has the right to freedom of speech and that includes you! If you disagree with ideas that are expressed on campus, you can exercise your own freedom of speech to express your ideas. This includes the right to protest, as long as the protest follows PCC’s policies. You can also ignore the speech you disagree with. Finally, if you feel safe, you can try to talk with the people expressing the view you disagree with. Resources regarding offensive speech includes more information about how to respond to offensive speech and resources you can go to for support.
What is the difference between offensive speech and harassment?
PCC policies prohibit harassment. Speech or other expression that constitutes harassment is not permitted. PCC’s policy describes “harassment” as “unwelcome verbal, nonverbal (for example, whistling), visual or physical conduct based on protected status that is so severe, persistent, and pervasive that it interferes with or limits a student, faculty or staff member’s ability to participate in or benefit from the College’s educational and/or employment opportunities, programs or activities.” Under PCC’s policy “protected status” includes race, color, religion, national origin, sex, marital status, disability, veteran status, age, and sexual orientation.
There is a difference between offensive speech and harassment. Offensive speech can be upsetting and make others feel disturbed or angry. However, offensive speech does not stop members of the PCC community from being able to participate in or access PCC programs or opportunities. Harassing speech is usually more targeted at a specific person, and thus could impact that person’s ability to access PCC’s programs or opportunities. Here is more information and resources regarding harassment.
PCC strives to support freedom of expression while also prohibiting harassment. Sometimes this can be challenging, because one person believes they are simply expressing their opinion but another person experiences their statements as harassment. Such situations need to be evaluated based on the specific context to make sure everyone’s rights are protected. If you believe you are being harassed, you should report it immediately. Please contact the Office of Equity and Inclusion or refer to the Non-harassment website for more information.
Isn’t hate speech illegal?
In the past, some colleges tried to ban speech that was racist or expressed other hateful ideas. The courts found that “hate speech” policies violated the First Amendment, because they banned too much speech (including speech that was offensive) or because they were too vague and did not allow students to predict what type of speech would be considered “hate speech.” Thus, PCC cannot ban “hate speech.” Instead, PCC’s policies prohibit expression that constitutes harassment or discrimination.
What about expression that isn’t true? Does PCC review information that is distributed on campus to make sure it is truthful?
PCC does not review information that students or groups distribute under the Freedom of Expression policy to make sure it is truthful or accurate. In part, this is because it can be risky to the have the government decide what is “true.” If you receive information from a person or organization engaging in free expression activities, it is your obligation to learn more about the person or organization and the information provided. However, if expression is targeted at an individual and is untrue, it could violate PCC policy.
To learn more about reviewing sources and evaluating the truth of statements for yourself, the PCC Library offers a research guide to help.
Where can I go for more information about the freedom of expression?
We urge you to learn more about freedom of expression by reviewing PCC’s policy and procedures. In addition, the following websites have valuable information about the First Amendment:
- ACLU guide to Speech on Campus
- Knight Foundation guide to Free Expression on Campus
- American Association of University Professors statement On Freedom of Expression and Campus Speech Codes
Are there trainings on Freedom of Expression that PCC provides?
Training for faculty and the college community is being developed and will begin Fall 2021.