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Student Speech and the First Amendment

Any consideration of controlling racial harassment at public colleges and universities inevitably highlights a conflict between two fundamental rights: that of students to learn in an environment free from unlawful discrimination (under Title VI) and the right of free expression (under the First and Fourteenth Amendments to the US Constitution).

Most public post-secondary institutions are recipients of Federal dollars, and therefore are subject to Title VI. Under pronouncements of both the US Department of Education (which oversees Title VI enforcement) and Federal courts, such a school must take steps to prohibit racial harassment between or among students.

Under the US Constitution, both Federal and state governments may not serve to abridge a person's freedom of speech. Courts have long held that a public educational institution acts on behalf of the state and, therefore, may not unduly restrict the free speech rights of its students.

The Constitution does not guarantee one the right to subject another to racial slurs; nevertheless, what some might deem racial harassment may indeed be protected speech.

Published in the Winter 1999 Edition of In Brief

Questions or comments?
Contact Lee Combs @ 480.731.8878

Maricopa Community Colleges
Office of General Counsel
2411 West 14th Street
Tempe, AZ 85281-6942
480.731.8877 / 480.731.8890 fax

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