Hate speech: Protected under the First Amendment?

Photo of Jessica Howard by Jovana Caicedo.

“Who is the one that is deciding what is hate speech?” Jessica Howard asked in a discussion with students. 

Guest speaker Jessica Howard, the community education manager at the Colorado chapter of the American Civil Liberties organization, spoke on Feb. 14, to students at the University of Northern Colorado about the rights they have on campus. The event was hosted by the Vice President’s Advisory Committee on Climate and the Division of Student Affairs.

“A lot is happening on this campus,” Howard said, highlighting the current campus protests going on.

Before the Know Your Rights event students attended the Faculty Senate meeting to protest the firing of 65 staff members, many of whom are administrative assistants.

“A lot of students, faculty, and staff members feel really strongly about not getting rid of 65 people, especially admin assistants who they think have a really vital role in their colleges,” said Malaika Michel-Fuller, the UNC Student Trustee.  


When discussing the reasons why students attended the Know Your Rights event, students cited the LGBTQ hate crime incidence that happened in Sep. 2019, and the potential for an increase in hate speech with the upcoming elections.

Howard had some unsettling news for students.

“It’s really hard knowing that hate speech is constitutionally protected speech,” Howard said.

She went on to say the restrictions on this type of speech are limited. Hate speech is not protected if it turns into hateful and potentially harmful behaviors, or if there is an immediate threat behind the words.

However, this brought little comfort for students. Many felt as though hate speech should not be protected. 

“I did research on racial battle fatigue, which is the accumulation of racial microaggressions,” Torrence Brown-Smith, a graduate student of Sociology at the University of Northern Colorado said. “Our president was like well it’s protected [hate speech/gestures] but I’m like it’s not [protected]. If you can hear people’s stories you would understand you can never protect that because people are dropping out of school because they feel threatened.”

Other students echoed his words with snapping fingers and claps, showing their support. 

Photo of Know Your Rights information card by Jovana Caicedo.

A small pink card was handed out to the crowd that listed the main rights of protesters. Students sought knowledge of the rights protesters have on campus. According to the ACLU’s pamphlets, protesters have a right to protest in public areas, public schools and public universities. 

However, protesters could be restricted by the rules of the schools or if the protest is deemed as interfering with the school day. The ACLU advises protestors to not interfere with people’s access to buildings, to stay away from private property, and to check with local governments about permits and fees. 

Howard stressed the protester’s right to photograph or video any encounter with law enforcement. 

“Make sure to keep your body protected,” Howard said. “If you’re on public property, in public view, in plain sight, and you’re showing exactly what you’re doing, you do have the right to take those photographs.”

She recommended students use an ACLU app called the Mobile Justice app. Once the video is made, the recording will be sent directly to the ACLU where it will be saved and reviewed by staff at the ACLU. This is so that if the phone used to take the picture is broken by police or lost in some way, the evidence of a possible violation of rights is still out there and can be investigated. 

“It’s a space for students to express their feelings and concerns, and we do not have a lot of spaces like that on campus, where students feel like they can speak freely and be heard and valued,” Michel-Fuller said. “So that, when we leave college and are residents of our community, we’re more informed.” 


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