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Student Freedom of Speech & Activism

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The ODU student chapter of Young Americans for Liberty encouraged passersby to leave a message on the “Free Speech Wall” during activity hour on Thursday. Photo by Steve Daniel

Please Note:

This website is being modified to better serve you. The information is being reviewed and edited to ensure accuracy and user friendliness. Should you have any questions or concerns about this website, please contact Traci Daniels, Student Engagement & Enrollment at tdaniels@odu.edu.



Free speech & diversity

Old Dominion encourages diversity in every aspect of the university. Diversity enhances and enriches the educational, employment, and community experience. To this end, we must foster an environment conducive for meaningful and robust expression of ideas reflecting variety points of view. That is why at ODU we recognize the importance of protecting freedom of speech as a "right" and a cherished value that enhances the learning experience.

Virginia law reaffirming free speech

The First Amendment of the U.S. Constitution states, in part, that "Congress shall pass no law infringing on freedom of speech." The protections of the First Amendment are extended to state governments and public university campuses by the Fourteenth Amendment. Virginia passed a law in 2017 reaffirming free speech and speakers on public college campuses. Old Dominion University cannot censor speakers that are sponsored by our students. However, speakers are still required to comply with the law and University policies. These regulations reflect the educational purposes of the University and are for the protection and safety of the University community.

Please see the University's report on compliance with Virginia Code Section 23.1-401.1., which addresses how Virginia's public, higher-education institutions must address constitutionally protected speech.


ODU supports freedom of expression while fostering a climate for civil and respectful dialogue

Old Dominion University strives to inform students about individual freedoms of expression and diversity of opinion. ODU also strives to empower students as to how to respond and advocate, when they are faced with speech that may be contrary to their own values and/or that of the University. ODU also affords students ways to affirm their rights when their constitutionally protected speech is disrupted. If you have related questions or concerns, please complete this form or call the Special Assistant to the Vice President of SEES at 757-683-6702 for help. Please also feel free to contact a member of our Freedom of Expression Team—so that we may assist and/or refer you to resources that support your awareness, interest and well-being in this pivotal time of social consciousness, discourse and activism.




Reporting a Concern

IF YOU BELIEVE SOMEONE OR SOMETHING IS HINDERING YOUR FREEDOM OF SPEECH, OR YOU BELIEVE YOU ARE BEING TARGETED AND/OR HARASSED BY SPEECH:

Contact the Special Assistant to the Vice-President for SEES 



IF YOU HAVE A CONCERN ABOUT POTENTIALLY VIOLENT BEHAVIOR:

Contact the Threat Education Assessment & Management Team 



IF YOU HAVE A CONCERN ABOUT DISCRIMINATION/HARASSMENT:

Contact Institutional Equity & Diversity 


Thumbnail image of Freedom of Speech handout



Frequently Asked Questions


What are some examples of free speech?

Speech can take place in various forms, including, but not limited to face to face communication, internet/social media communication, art, music and clothing.


How do I exercise my freedom of speech at ODU?

As a student, you have many opportunities to express your point of view—some routine activities include:

  • Classroom participation
  • Joining student organizations
  • Planning events and creating forums for expression

You also have the right to peacefully assemble and engage in vigils, demonstrations and protests.


Where can this free speech (vigils, demonstrations and protests) occur on campus?

It may occur anywhere as ODU does not have any specific "free-speech" zones. However, ODU encourages students to reserve space for all events - including events that involve freedom of expression, such as peaceful vigils, demonstrations, and protests. While all indoor spaces may only be reserved by a sponsoring student organization, outside space for the purpose of free speech can be reserved by individual students in addition to student organizations. As a reminder, ODU is providing the location for free speech to occur and time, place and manner rules apply (see below). However, the content of the speech and the event itself are not sponsored by ODU. These are sponsored by the student or student organization and the sponsor should be present for the duration of the event. Please refer to Policy 1700-University Demonstrations Policy for additional information on reserving space.


How does ODU support my right to engage in demonstrations and protests?

The University affirms the right to engage in peaceful, orderly demonstrations, and will facilitate these events in an impartial manner within practical rules designed by the University. The right to demonstrate does not include engaging in actions that disrupt the University's operations or endangers the safety of others. Procedures have been established to regulate the time, place, and manner of such activities, but these regulations are not for the purpose of censorship. For more information, please refer to the University Demonstrations Policy. If you are a student and are interested in planning a vigil, demonstration or protest, please contact Student Engagement & Traditions at http://cglink.me/s22989 or 757-683-3446.

Please note that participants of freedom of expression related events must follow ODU protocols related to COVID-19 safety. Refer to the Interim University Policy 1006 COVID 19.


What are limits to free speech?

Time, place and manner parameters: The University has various policies including the above cited demonstrations policy, use space, restrictions on hanging posters in designated areas, student conduct related policies, among others that regulate the time, place and manner of the speech. As the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education (FIRE) describes it...these restrictions, " define when, where, and how a speaker may present a message. For example, while it may be permissible to shout "Stop the war!" or "Support our troops!" at noon in the open space in front of a campus administration building, the campus administration has the right to prevent the same speech from being delivered at the same decibel level in the hall of a dormitory at 3:00AM," See FIRE.


Unprotected Speech: Not all speech is protected by the First amendment, the following categories of speech fall outside of these constitutional protections. These categories include the following:

  • Incitement - to provoke "imminent unlawful action."
  • Making a "true threat" - expressing the intent of committing violence to a particular individual or group of individuals.
  • "Fighting words" - (limited to fac-to-face communications) where "by the very act of being spoken, tend to incite the targeted individual to respond immediately with violence.
  • Obscenity - (depiction of sexual conduct)
  • Defamation - false communication that harms the individual's reputation

For a complete description of these categories, please refer to the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education (FIRE) website.


What is the difference between hate speech and a hate crime?

Most speech, including offensive and hateful speech is still protected under the First amendment. According to ACLU Legal Director, Steven Shapiro, "the First Amendment really was designed to protect a debate at the fringes. You don't need the courts to protect speech that everybody agrees with, because that speech will be tolerated. You need a First Amendment to protect speech that people regard as intolerable or outrageous or offensive — because that is when the majority will wield its power to censor or suppress, and we have a First Amendment to prevent the government from doing that."

Hate Crime = Crime + Bias

In contrast a hate crime is a punishable offense that is committed with the motivation of bias as defined by federal and state law. According to the FBI, a hate crime is a traditional offense like murder, arson, or vandalism with an added element of bias. For the purposes of collecting statistics, the FBI has defined a hate crime as a "criminal offense against a person or property motivated in whole or in part by an offender's bias against a race, religion, disability, sexual orientation, ethnicity, gender, or gender identity," See FBI Website.

Within the Commonwealth of Virginia, a hate crime is defined as " (i) a criminal act committed against a person or their property with the specific intent of instilling fear or intimidation in the individual against whom the act is perpetrated because of race, religion, gender, disability, gender identity, sexual orientation, or ethnic or national origin or that is committed for the purpose of restraining that person from exercising his rights under the Constitution or laws of the Commonwealth or of the United States. For full text, see Code of Virginia § 52-8.5.

ODU's demonstration policy highlights some expression related "symbolic speech" crimes including burning crosses, placing swastikas and/or hanging a noose on certain property. See University Demonstration Policy's description of symbolic speech at https://www.odu.edu/about/policiesandprocedures/university/1000/1700.

Our University Police enforces the law and collects reports of hate crimes in compliance with the Clery Act. See https://www.odu.edu/police/clery#tab187=1. Should you encounter this or any other crime any crime you should report it to our University Police or your police in your locality.


What is the difference between hate and/or bias speech and harassment?

Bias is a preconceived negative opinion or attitude about a group of people who possess common characteristics and/or cultural experience. While "bias" speech is often disturbing, polarizing, and likely to cause negative consequences such as loss of trust and/or mutual respect, this speech is NOT presumed to be a policy violation of harassment.

Old Dominion University's Discrimination Policy defines harassment as "unwelcome conduct that is sufficiently severe, persistent or pervasive, and subjectively and objectively offensive as to substantially or effectively disrupt or undermine a person's ability to participate in or benefit from a University program or activity, including, but not limited to, employment." Bias does not raise to the level of harassment unless it reaches to the level of this definition. For more information about harassment, please contact the Office of Institutional Equity & Diversity.

Here are some examples that distinguish bias from discriminatory harassment.

Bias: Upon first meeting a student, you joke on them because of their language or accent or make fun of their traditional manner of dress or geographic origin.

Harassment: You constantly insult this student (in person and through social-media) resulting in a severe and persistent pattern of bullying - because of their language, accent, traditional manner, or geographic origin.


What are some suggestions of how I can respond to speech from a fellow student that offends me?

If you are comfortable and safe--(and the speech is not a threat/crime) consider speaking directly to the individual making the offensive remark. In some circumstances, the individual might not have intended to "offend" yet the impact of their expression clearly "reads" as bias. Some examples include making jokes that reinforce stereotypes, engaging in sexual banter, mimicking a stereotype of a culture,) etc. When engaging in these discussions, it helps to describe exactly what you heard and/or have observed, then share how you felt about it and explain why what you experienced with that individual is offensive.

If you are not comfortable with talking with the individual, you can give cues to convey you are not in agreement with what has been said. Such cues include silence, changing the subject or ending the conversation.

And if it is obvious that the individual's intent is to offend—you can call it out, or ignore it in order to deprive that individual of a reaction or audience.

Finally, if you are not comfortable confronting offensive speech (but you are still disturbed by the speech), you can always discuss your concerns with an instructor, trusted staff member or a member of our Freedom of Expression team.


What do you mean by intent vs. impact?

It is critical to understand intent versus impact related to speech. You may not "mean to" or have a malicious motive for saying or doing something that someone else takes it as being derogatory or offensive. However, what you intend does not always align with how your actions are being "received" by or conveyed to an individual or group. Regardless of the intent, words and actions have impact. That is why we encourage our Monarch citizens to be intentional about engaging in respectful discussions, where the speaker is informed, respects differences and demonstrates a "care" for what is being said to their audience. "When you focus on the impact you have on others, you demonstrate a willingness to take stock of your actions and how they affect others,"—diversityedu at https://diversityedu.com/blog/inclusive-workplace/intent-vs-impact For the listener, it is helpful not to make assumptions about what is intended by the person speaking. It is helpful to ask for clarification.... i.e. I heard you say "x" -what did you mean by that? It is also helpful to express that any "ill" intent of the speech is NOT welcomed.


Adapted from Michigan Tech University's Center for Diversity & Inclusion Website.