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Frequently Asked Questions

Note: Issues pertaining to freedom of speech and expression can be very complicated and confusing. This website is intended only to provide a brief outline about freedom of speech and expression, and is not meant to serve as legal advice.

If you are a currently registered Northern Illinois University student, you may wish to contact Students' Legal Assistance at (815) 753-1701 to schedule an appointment in order to discuss a particular question or issue. The Office of the Ombudsperson also provides students, faculty and staff with guidance to help solve a variety of university-related issues or conflicts.

Why is NIU changing its free speech policy?

We are a university that thrives on inquiry and open debate. In reviewing our policies, we found that there was a perception that we were limiting this kind of debate to one or two small sections of the campus. We want the entire public space of the campus to be a free speech zone. That’s what a university is all about.

Is this prompted by specific issues that have arisen regarding free-speech on campus?

No, this policy is not in response to a problem, but rather an effort to ensure that our policies are up-to-date and in line with the freedoms guaranteed in the Constitution.

Is this in response to what the University of Chicago did?

No. Our free speech policy was more than thirty years old, and we found it was out of date. Ironically, we created a free speech zone to encourage free speech. Now upon reflection, we realize it created confusion about how and where speech and expression can happen on campus. We wanted to correct that. We did look at the U of C freedom of expression policy, and others’, before developing the revision of our own.

If free speech is guaranteed by the Constitution, why do we need a policy?

Actually, one of the primary intentions in developing this policy was to ensure that our policies are in line with the Constitution.

Who developed the policy?

The new policy was drafted as part of a collaborative and consultative process which included the Provost Office, Student Affairs, students, Students’ Legal Assistance, our cultural centers, Police & Public Safety, as well as the senior cabinet, university leadership and college deans. The Office of the General Counsel completed a legal review of the policy.

What is really different?

The University’s free speech zones were limited to a zone in the Martin Luther King commons outside of the Holmes Student Center or on a square in front of the Convocation Center. Now free speech can take place at any outside area on campus.

This seems more restrictive than the past policy. Is that true?

Actually, it’s far less restrictive. Before, the free speech zones were limited to a small area at MLK Commons and in front of the Convocation Center.  Now, virtually the entire outdoor campus is a free speech zone.

I used to be able to avoid the MLK green zone when offensive and hateful speakers were present. Now these speakers can be wherever they want including in front of my residence hall, cafeteria, academic buildings, etc. Why isn’t the university working to protect me?

Our new free speech policy stresses that people should be respectful of one another and not descend into what would be termed illegal “hate speech.” If that happens, the university is within its rights to take action. However, the first amendment to the Constitution of the United States does not give individuals and groups a Constitutional right not to be offended by something they hear or is said. 

The policy creates protocols for groups to register to conduct free speech activities. If we believe in truly free speech, why not just let people spontaneously do what they like?

We are a community, just like a small city or town, and like cities and towns, people have the presumption of privacy and peace. You don’t expect to see free speech activities at five o’clock in the morning outside the door of your house when you’re back home. Similarly, we want to make sure that those who exercise their free speech rights on campus are respectful of others and yet permitted to conduct their activities as the law allows.

If a group isn’t required to share the content of their protest/rally in advance, how is the counterpoint supposed to be represented?

There is no requirement that there be a counterpoint to every protest or rally. That’s not required in the Constitution, and not something that we believe is necessary. Those with contrary view points have the same rights and opportunities to create their own free speech activities.

Does this apply to students only or will the public have to adhere to this as well?

The public clearly has free speech rights, but this policy is intended to be largely for students, so they feel comfortable expressing viewpoints.

What about “politically incorrect” speech? Are people who say hurtful things that might offend some people protected by this policy?

To the same extent that they are protected by the Constitution, yes. However, this policy provides no extra protection or shield that is not already provided by the Constitution.

Who decides what speech/expression is outside the bounds of this policy?

Police and university administrators will determine if speech/expression has violated the policy. Decisions will be based upon the nature of the event, not the nature of the message being shared – unless it veers into illegal hate speech or otherwise violates the law, in which case the presenters would be asked to stop or face penalties.

Have the police been involved and do they understand the rights of students per this freedom of expression policy?

Police Chief Tom Phillips has in fact been involved since the very beginning as we have been drafting the policy. He and his team understand the policy very well, and know that they are here only to ensure public safety and not to infringe on anyone’s free speech rights.

What will be done to individuals who conduct expressive activities without registering?

As long as they conform to the rules (do not create dangerous situations, do not disrupt normal operations, do not use illegal hate speech, etc.) they will face no sanctions.

However, we do strongly encourage that people register free speech events in advance so that the university can make any necessary arrangements for the safety of the campus community, will not conflict with other events, etc. Ultimately, registering will likely allow groups or individuals to share their message more effectively.

What about trigger warnings?

Free speech is a separate issue from trigger warnings. Those warnings refer to material that is taught in a classroom. At NIU, a Student Code governs our students’ classroom conduct and behavior, and our faculty members have latitude to establish their own ground rules as to how they want to teach their material. If they believe that certain materials may cause some trauma to specific students, we don’t believe it is our place to mandate that they should, or should not, apprise those students of the potential for them to feel some lack of comfort.

Does the policy apply to NIU employees?

Everyone has the right to free speech. However, as public employees, NIU employees do have some limitations on what they can advocate while they are on university time and on campus. For example, they are not allowed to campaign for political candidates.

The university is setting up a Bias Action Team to deal with complaints about bias? Isn’t it likely that some of that bias will be generated by students exercising their free speech rights? Won’t it create a conflict between the Bias Action Team and this new freedom of expression policy?

The Bias Action Team will deal with complaints on a case by case basis. We believe we can work to ensure a bias-free campus without abridging the free speech rights of individuals and groups.

Why are classrooms excluded from the policy? Aren’t these prime venues for “lively and vigorous debate of issues”?

Certainly classrooms are an arena where we encourage the free exchange of viewpoints. However, as has always been the case, faculty retain the right to shape the discourse that takes place within their classrooms.

Why are supportive spaces exempt?

These spaces are considered similar to a classroom in that those in charge of these areas have the right to regulate the tenor of discussion there. Beyond providing a place where those who might be offended can seek relief, these spaces also provide opportunities for those individuals to talk through issues in a non-confrontational space.

Can those who are asked to stop their event appeal that decision?

Yes, a three person panel consisting of the Executive Vice President & Provost, the Vice President for Finance and Administration and the Vice President for Student Affairs and Enrollment Management, or their designees, will consider such appeals. Those appeals would take place after the fact.

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