Frequently Asked Questions
"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 speech is the right of persons to articulate their opinions and ideas without interference or retaliation from the government. The term “speech” constitutes expression that includes far more than just words, but also what a person wears, reads, performs, protests, and more.
In the United States, freedom of speech is strongly protected by the First Amendment of the U.S. Constitution, as well as by many state and federal laws. The United States’ free speech protections are among the strongest of any democracy; the First Amendment protects speech that some view as offensive, hateful, or harassing.
As a public institution, the U.S. Constitution prohibits Stony Brook University from banning or punishing speech based on its content or viewpoint. Registered student clubs and organizations are welcome to invite speakers to campus and provide access to campus venues, in accordance with the policies outlined in the Community Guidelines for Recognized Student Organizations. The University cannot take away that right or withdraw resources based on the views of the invited speaker.
No, as this would violate established laws and the rights of student clubs and organizations to invite whomever they wish to Stony Brook. While student clubs and organizations have the right to free speech and to invite speakers of all kinds to campus, these groups are encouraged to consider that such autonomy comes with a responsibility for the consequences of their words and actions. Controversial viewpoints should encourage open dialogue. Vehement disagreement does not foreclose dialogue or the right to promote a campus environment where unusual/unorthodox thought is allowed.
The Supreme Court has said that public entities, including Stony Brook University, have discretion to regulate the "time, place, and manner" of speech. The right to speak on campus is not a right to speak at any time, at any place, and in any manner that a person wishes. The University can regulate where, when, and how speech occurs in order to ensure the functioning of the campus and achievement of important goals – such as protecting public safety.
When it comes to controversial speakers, Stony Brook University invokes this necessary authority in order to hold events at a time and location that maximizes the chances that an event will proceed successfully and safely. The University heeds the University Police Department’s (UPD) assessment of how best to hold safe and successful events. The University may invoke its time, place, and manner discretion, for example, to ensure that an event with a highly controversial speaker would be held in a venue that UPD believes to be protectable (e.g., one with an ample number of exits, etc.).
The need to consider time, place, and manner regulations is the reason that we require students to work with Student Affairs when setting up their events, as opposed to scheduling and creating events on their own.
The U.S. Constitution guarantees freedom of speech by default, placing the burden on the state to demonstrate whether there are any circumstances that justify its limitation. Established exceptions to the First Amendment include, but are not limited to, the following:
- Speech that would be deemed a “true threat”: Speech that a person reasonably would perceive as an immediate threat to their physical safety is not protected by the First Amendment. For example, if a group of students yelled at a student in a menacing way that would cause the student to fear a physical assault, such speech would not be protected.
- Incitement of illegal activity: There is no right to incite people to break the law, including to commit acts of violence. To constitute incitement, the Supreme Court has said that there must be a substantial likelihood of imminent illegal activity and the speech must be directed to causing imminent illegal activity. For example, a speaker on campus who exhorts the audience to engage in acts of vandalism and destruction of property is not protected by the First Amendment if there is a substantial likelihood of imminent illegal activity.
- Harassment: Harassment in an educational institution aimed at an individual on the basis of a protected characteristic (e.g., race, gender, sexual orientation, religion, etc.); that is also pervasive and severe; is a direct or implied threat to employment or education; or creates an intimidating, hostile and demeaning atmosphere, is not protected by the First Amendment. For example, posting racist messages on the residence hall room of an African American student would be regarded as harassment and not speech protected by the First Amendment.
The term “hate speech” does not have a legal definition in the United States. Nevertheless, the term often refers to speech that insults or demeans a person or group of people on the basis of particular attributes such as race, religion, ethnic origin, sexual orientation, disability, or gender. While the University condemns speech of this kind, there is no “hate speech” exception to the First Amendment. “Hate speech” is constitutionally protected speech. “Hate speech” is illegal if it falls into one of the exception categories mentioned in the preceding question. On many occasions, the Supreme Court has explicitly held that prohibitions or punishments for hate speech violate the First Amendment.
Just because there is a First Amendment right to say something, however, doesn’t mean that it should be said. The First Amendment protects the right to say hateful things, but as a campus, Stony Brook strives to be a community where no one chooses to express hate.
The Supreme Court has made it clear that a public institution like Stony Brook cannot prevent speech on the grounds that it is likely to provoke a hostile response. Stopping speech before it occurs is called a “prior restraint” and is almost never allowed.
While the University is constitutionally required and committed to doing what it can to protect speakers and to prevent disruption or violence, if despite all efforts by the campus there is a serious threat to public safety and no other alternative, a speaker’s event can be cancelled. This is a last resort and never done based on the views of the speaker. Stony Brook University’s need to protect the safety of its students, staff, and faculty is of paramount importance.
Absolutely. The University supports the notion of a “marketplace of ideas,” where speech that a person disagrees with is met with more speech that encourages engagement and debate. Such discourse is a core tenet of the First Amendment and is fostered by the University.
Safety and Community
When there is a threat of violence in our community, Stony Brook University’s administration works closely with Student Affairs , UPD, local law enforcement and/or other groups (when appropriate) to develop and communicate safety plans. Generally, we advise that if students see violence occurring, they should separate themselves from it, report what they see to UPD, and follow police instructions. When events are occurring that have the potential to endanger students, UPD will use text and email messaging to keep the campus informed about developments.
Stony Brook offers many resources (including counseling services) for students who have been affected physically, mentally, or emotionally by such events. Information about such resources is available at: https://www.stonybrook.edu/commcms/studentaffairs/health-wellness/
Critical statements, even the ridicule of individuals are still largely protected by the U.S. Constitution. The law under the First Amendment is clear – Stony Brook University cannot exclude speakers on this basis. If the campus believed that a speaker was going to engage in speech that was directed at an individual and not protected by the First Amendment – such as by repeating statements that had been found to be defamatory or by revealing publicly very private facts about an individual – the University would do all that it could to prevent this and to protect the person.
In addition to Stony Brook University’s five-part mission, the Community Pledge and Statement of Community serve as guides that affirm our institution’s values and commitment to one another.
The Community Pledge is an invitation to the Stony Brook community to voluntarily pledge to affirm our commitment to one another. The pledge reads as follows:
- I will not encroach on the rights of others, either as individuals or as groups.
- I accept the obligation to listen to and understand the beliefs and opinions of others, and to treat others fairly.
- I am accountable for my own behavior. I accept that I am, in part, responsible for the welfare of the community itself.
- I will stand up for the dignity of every member of this community.
- I will celebrate and express pride in our community’s diversity in all its forms: race, gender identity, differing ability, religion, sexual orientation or any of the dimensions which makes each person uniquely human.
In 1999-2000, the campus community approved the "Statement of Community," in which the members of the campus asserted:
“As members of Stony Brook University, we acknowledge that the primary purpose of this community is education, including academic achievement, social development, and personal growth.
In committing ourselves to study and work at Stony Brook, we agree to promote equality, civility, caring, responsibility, accountability, and respect. We also recognize the importance of understanding and appreciating our differences and similarities.
As members of a respectful community, we will not encroach on the rights of others, either as individuals or as groups. We recognize that freedom of expression and opinion entails an obligation to listen to and understand the beliefs and opinions of others, and to treat others fairly. We strive to be a responsible community. We are accountable individually for our personal behavior and development, and collectively for the welfare of the community itself.
We encourage all Stony Brook community members to celebrate and express pride in our community’s academic, athletic, and social accomplishments, and to involve themselves in the surrounding local and global communities. In affirming this statement, we commit ourselves to becoming dedicated, active, and full members of Stony Brook University in each and every role we assume.”
Policies & Resources
Yes, the University has a Use of Campus Facilities policy. This policy addresses use of campus space by internal and external groups, and includes pertinent information such as revocable permits, liability insurance, and fees.
Yes. The Community Guidelines for Recognized Student Organizations contains a wealth of information. This document is in place to “…assist all student, staff and faculty with all aspects of club functioning. This includes, but is not limited to, club registration, re-registration, and event advising. The Department of Student Engagement and Activities, works in conjunction with all recognized student clubs and organizations on campus to provide programs, resources and guidance. All services and guidelines are designed to further club and organization success and development.” This manual includes information on a number of items, including:
- On- and off-campus events and event policies
- Facilities Policies
- Posting Policy
- Public Assembly Policy
- Risk management
- Funding and budget management
- Conduct system
No, the University does not charge student clubs and organizations different fees to host speakers based on who the invited speaker is or the content of their speech.
As is the case with all events that student clubs and organizations host, those groups must reimburse the University for the cost of basic event security. These security charges are calculated based on neutral, objective criteria that have nothing to do with the speaker’s perspectives.
Yes. Stony Brook encourages all who engage in protest activity to do so safely and in accordance with the University’s Public Assembly policy and SUNY Policy 3653: Rules for the Maintenance of Public Order. Below are some helpful reminders:
- Avoid activity that obstructs the free movement of vehicles or persons such as blocking hallways and doors.
- Do not jeopardize the safety and security of others – the presence of sticks, poles, or torches are prohibited.
- Follow the lawful instructions of a police officer or public official, such as staying behind barricades, dispersing from an area declared an unlawful assembly, not resisting arrest. It is against the law to disobey a lawful order by a police officer.
- Leave an 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.
- 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.
- While exercising the right to public assembly, the Code of Student Responsibility and all other University policies remain in effect.
- Make informed decisions. If you choose to engage in civil disobedience and get arrested, know the potential consequences.
No. While the First Amendment protects freedom of speech and expression, it does not protect engagement in civil disobedience. By definition, civil disobedience involves the violation of laws or regulations, and has historically played a significant role in various social movements. Needless to say, students should be aware that participation in civil disobedience, whether on- or off-campus, could potentially result in serious criminal or University conduct charges. So if, for example, student protesters take over a campus building, or disrupt classes or events, their actions may be subject to punishment not only under the Code of Student Responsibility, but also in criminal court if the conduct constitutes a crime.
No, freedom of speech does not give someone the right to drown out the words and speech of others; freedom of speech would mean little if the audience was able to silence anyone they disagree with.
As noted above, the Supreme Court has said that public entities like Stony Brook University have discretion in regulating the "time, place, and manner" of speech. The right to speak on campus is not a right to speak at any time, at any place, and in any manner that a person wishes. These restrictions do not vary depending on the views or ideas being expressed; rather, they are about ensuring that speech occurs in a way that does not disrupt the University’s mission or endanger public safety.
The University has rules and regulations related to protest that are designed to prevent substantial disruption of educational activities, protect lawful access to campus programs and facilities, avoid unsafe behavior, and prevent the destruction of property. Their application does not vary according to the cause or content of a particular protest, speech, or other form of expression, and the rules and regulations are designed to enable extensive opportunity for expressive activity. For more information, please see the University’s Public Assembly policy and SUNY Policy 3653: Rules for the Maintenance of Public Order.
Stony Brook is an open campus; candidates and members of the community are permitted in public areas of the grounds and buildings and may hand out leaflets provided they do not disrupt or prevent the peaceful and orderly conduct of classes, lectures and meetings or otherwise violate the University’s Rules of Public Order (https://www.stonybrook.edu/commcms/studentaffairs/ucs/policies/order.php)
If candidates are invited to speak individually in their capacity as a candidate, steps should be taken to ensure that all legally qualified candidates in the applicable race are invited and that none are favored in relation to the activity. Each candidate should have an equal opportunity to participate. For example, if one candidate was invited to speak at a well‑attended annual banquet, inviting another candidate to speak at a sparsely attended general meeting would not satisfy the requirement of an equal opportunity to participate.
Outside groups, including partisan political organizations, may use campus facilities by obtaining a Revocable Use Permit in accordance with the University’s Use of Campus Facilities Policy P517 (https://www.stonybrook.edu/policy/policies.shtml?ID=517). SUNY policy also advises that events held by partisan political organizations should give promise of contributing to the educational purposes of the campus. Where press conferences are held by a candidate in the rented space, the university would make clear that it does not support or oppose any candidate and campaign fundraising at the event would be prohibited. Where possible, facilities should be made available for other viewpoints to be presented.
If a campus or a student group invites a candidate to campus, a similar outreach should be made to other bona fide candidates to the same or a similar event or opportunity. If a candidate is invited in his or her position as an elected official (and consequently not charged the costs that a candidate would pay to come on campus), it must be made clear that campaigning and fundraising are not allowed and that the individual is invited in their official capacity without comment about the merits of their candidacy.
Thank you to the University of California Board of Regents for allowing us to adapt these FAQs from U.C. Berkeley's free speech website.