Academic Freedom in the Classroom

Instructor’s Guide to
Academic Freedom in the Classroom

This page provides a brief overview of the key things you need to know about speech in the classroom as a college instructor at CSU. It explains your rights and responsibilities as a starting point for thinking about your practices and priorities in front of the classroom.

While teaching, controversial topics can and do arise. Students may express sentiments you find noxious or abhorrent. Current events, particularly in a contentious election year, may provoke you to sincere and genuine outrage that you feel compelled to share with your students.

You can and should exercise your discretion, potentially responding directly to offensive speech in the classroom with speech of your own, bearing in mind that your professional obligation as an instructor is to treat all students with respect and dignity.

This webpage does not address aspects of academic freedom related to faculty’s research, public speech, publishing, or other speech outside the classroom.

Colorado State University’s guiding principles emphasize that all members of the university community share in the pursuit of knowledge and the development of students.

Colorado State University has official policies around free speech, academic freedom, and workplace climate that establish codes of conduct. Relevant policies are linked at the bottom of this page.

The First Amendment and Public Speech on Campus

As a public university, CSU’s policies adhere to the rights guaranteed in the First Amendment to the Constitution, as it has been interpreted by the United States Supreme Court.

Freedom in Public Speech. On CSU campus, public areas like the Lory Student Center Plaza are “open to all individuals for the purpose of exercising free speech and assembly.”  This means that the CSU community has the right to express their views, no matter how controversial, in these areas unless that expression is disruptive or unsafe.

Things to know about the First Amendment:

  1. The Supreme Court continues to affirm that colleges and universities may never punish or censor the expression of mere ideas expressed in public, however offensive they may be.
  2. Outside of the classroom, the campus constitutes a looser zone of largely unrestricted speech, as guaranteed by the First Amendment.
  3. True threats to, and/or harassment of, individuals are not protected speech anywhere. They each have a specific legal definition and are usually determined on a case-by-case basis.

The First Amendment to the Constitution of the United States

“Congress shall make no law … abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble …”

Speech in the Classroom

Classroom Speech Is Different. According to CSU policy, classrooms have different rules than public areas. Classrooms are considered non-public areas – that is, places “normally not intended to be open to the general public for purposes of expressive activities or gatherings.”

That means that certain types of speech allowed in the plaza are not allowed in classrooms, including demonstrations, amplified sound, and signage, as well as “any activity that interferes with academic or operational functions.” Non-public areas do not fall under the same policies about free speech that public areas do.

Creating an inclusive classroom climate. CSU policy makes clear that instructors are responsible for “creating and sustaining a welcoming, accessible and inclusive campus.” As teachers, our responsibility is to make space for different opinions in our classrooms, which may mean withholding our personal views on a topic to help us all understand rather than judge.

Your responsibility over the classroom. The CSU Academic Faculty and Administrative Professional Manual states that, “The classroom instructor is responsible for controlling the conduct of the class and the demeanor and behavior of the students in exercising classroom discipline.” That means that you have the right and responsibility to limit harmful discussions or debates among your students as well as to encourage academically vital discussions that might make them uncomfortable.

Avoiding bullying, discrimination, or harassment. An important aspect of creating an inclusive learning environment is following CSU policy around bullying, which prohibits employees from “repeated mistreatment by words or actions that are intended to shame, embarrass, humiliate, degrade, demean, intimidate, and/or threaten an individual or group.” Similarly, CSU prohibits harassment or discrimination in order to provide an environment that is free from “discrimination based on race, age, creed, color, religion, national origin or ancestry, sex, gender, disability, veteran status, genetic information, sexual orientation, gender identity or expression, or pregnancy.”

These guidelines do not mean you can’t talk about controversial or emotionally charged topics in the classroom, but they do emphasize our responsibilities as teachers to foster open dialog and a respectful learning environment.

Students engaged in classroom discussion

“Neither free speech principles nor academic freedom gives a faculty member the right to use the classroom as his or her personal platform for the expression of political opinions without regard to professional norms, or to prevent students from having their fair opportunity to express views without fear of being punished.”

-- Erwin Chemerinsky and Howard Gillman

Advice to Promote Open Dialog

Reduces Open Dialog Fosters Open Dialog
Expressing your opinion about or allegiance to a political party or sides of a controversy Discussing with students the different views of political parties or sides of a controversy
Assigning a reading or other content with strongly partisan or one-sided views Assigning multiple readings on controversial topics from various perspectives
Naming comments or people as racist, intolerant, homophobic, elitist, liberal, right-wing, radical, or other labels that tend to divide rather than unite us Starting a conversation about biases or inequities that influence the meaning and understanding of certain words, phrases, or actions
Participating in a debate or controversy on a specific side Taking the role of facilitator who provides space for multiple viewpoints
Ignoring or being silent when a student insults another student or you Asking the student to rephrase and practice mutual respect in the classroom

Academic Freedom

Colorado State University considers freedom of discussion, inquiry, and expression to be in keeping with the history and traditions of our country and to be a cornerstone of education in a democracy.

A vital part of your position as a teacher at Colorado State University is your freedom of expression and inquiry, or academic freedom.

Your right to explore controversial topics. In your classroom, this means that you have the right to explore topics, perspectives, ideas, and views according to your professional judgment about appropriate content, regardless of the philosophies of the institution or of your colleagues. The Faculty Manual affirms that instructors are, “entitled to learn and to teach in the classroom what scholarship suggests is the truth in their particular field of expertise.”

Things to know about academic freedom:

  1. CSU affirms your right to engage in scholarly dialogue in your classes, even when the conversations may turn uncomfortable or even psychologically distressing to those who care intently about their individual values and ideals.
  2. Your students’ own academic freedom depends on their ability to think freely and make up their own minds about controversial topics. Your effectiveness as an instructor to all of your students depends in large part on your fair-mindedness in presenting such material in class.
  3. You may choose to provide warnings or introductions before presenting sensitive, offensive, or upsetting material in class at your discretion. You are not required to do so if in your professional judgment providing these warnings would be pedagogically inappropriate or ineffective.

“A faculty member is a citizen, a member of a learned profession, and an officer of an educational institution. When speaking or writing as a citizen, he or she should be free from institutional censorship or discipline, but this special position in the community imposes special obligations… Hence the individual should at all times be accurate, exercise appropriate restraint, show every respect for the opinion of others, and make every effort to indicate that he or she is not an institutional spokesman.”

Faculty Manual, E.8 Academic Freedom, section 2.g

The Central Role of Inclusivity

CSU’s land grant mission of access emphasizes that all are welcome to come and learn with us. Educating our community about the psychological harm caused by microaggressions and other forms of insensitive or hostile speech is essential to that end.

Creating an inclusive climate. CSU’s Inclusivity Policy uses a broad and inclusive definition of diversity to examine and address historical exclusion and marginalization of certain groups. It states that promoting equity requires active measures to address barriers that can prevent some individuals from fully accessing and enjoying the benefits of our facilities, educational opportunities, and information in the same way that other individuals do.

This work includes using universal design principles in course development and intentionally valuing “all voices and contributors, while mitigating intentional and unintentional incidents of bias.”

“Campuses should try to sensitize their communities to the kinds of words and statements that might be unintentionally offensive. We should all listen when others tell us they feel insulted and hurt.”

-- Erwin Chemerinsky and Howard Gillman

Engaging with challenging speech. When students express ideas that offend others in class, a proper response is often more speech. Instructors can emphasize CSU’s Principles of Community – inclusion, integrity, respect, service, and social justice – to re-direct discussions. It is also helpful to work collboratively with students to establish and reinforce class discussion guidelines at the start of the semester.

Of course “more speech” does not undo the hurt challenging or offensive words can cause. However, the alternative of allowing government officials and university administrators to censor speech based on content alone is not only unpalatable, it is unconstitutional.

Instructors should feel empowered to engage with difficult or offensive speech in a respectful and direct manner if the speech relates to class material. In so doing, instructors model to students effective argumentation, logic, and critical thinking. Moreover, instructors can teach students methods of responding to speech they disagree with. Instructors also enjoy the discretion to calmly redirect and move on from student speech that veers off topic into offensive terrain.

Professor Ramaa Vasudevan interacts with students in the Economics 376 class

Teaching Strategies

  • Involve students in crafting discussion guidelines at the beginning of the semester. These guidelines can be referred to in more heated moments later on.
  • Use assignment design to encourage students away from potentially offensive topics by placing minimal constraints on acceptable content for assignments in public speaking or composition classes, for instance.
  • Honor the presence of all students, especially students of color and other minoritized backgrounds, by educating yourself on microaggressions and avoiding them studiously in class.
  • Avoid using the classroom as a venue for expressing personal political opinions unrelated to course material.
  • When controversial topics are an element of course material, begin class by reminding students of the shared discussion guidelines drafted earlier in the semester. Consider giving students a few minutes to privately write down their answers to potentially contentious questions before opening up discussion.

Addressing and Reporting Issues

If serious issues around your classroom environment and/or teaching arise, including ones that you feel violate your academic freedom, you can address them in a more formal setting. Alert your chair and/or immediate supervisor about the issue, and see this chart for details and suggestions about the process.

CSU has several ways you can report concerns about the behavior of CSU community members, including:

  • Incidence of Bias reporting - A bias incident is any conduct, speech, or expression, motivated in whole or in part by bias or prejudice that is meant to intimidate, demean, mock, degrade, marginalize, or threaten individuals or groups based on that individual or group’s actual or perceived identities.
  • Student Conduct Code violation reporting – The Student Conduct Code defines University intervention, resolution options and possible disciplinary action related to the behavior of both individual students and student organizations.
  • Tell Someone - If you are concerned about safety or mental health – your own or someone else’s –call (970) 491-1350 or complete the online referral form.
  • Student Conflict Resolution - Conflict Resolution Services, which include mediation, training, appeals, and more, are available to current students and to faculty and staff who want assistance with an issue involving a student.

Draft Syllabus Language: Free Speech and Academic Freedom

Below is proposed language to include on syllabi. For additional tips on creating an academic freedom policy or statement, see PEN America’s Campus Free Speech Guide.

Members of this class –both students and faculty—are protected by the freedom of speech and academic freedom. The freedom of speech is guaranteed by the U.S. Constitution and protects individuals from government infringement on their speech. Academic freedom includes the right of students to learn and of faculty to research and teach without intrusion from the government(s), institutional leadership, or each other. Both the freedom of speech and academic freedom have been affirmed by the policies and procedures of Colorado State University. In simple terms, both freedoms encourage students and faculty to pursue the truth, debate ideas, express their opinions, and participate in public life without unwarranted negative consequences to their grades, employment, or standing in the university. Indeed, the very work of the university and this class cannot be accomplished without these freedoms.

Because the classroom is non-public space, certain kinds of speech can be limited in that context.  Students and faculty also have responsibilities to treat each other with respect and dignity, to listen as well as to speak, to take reasoned exception to objectionable speech with contrary speech, and to engage in class discussion and discourse in shared purpose and good faith. Said otherwise, while academic freedom and freedom of speech protect speech by students and instructors in the classroom, they do not excuse harassment, threats, disrespectful or dehumanizing language, or other speech that violates the Student Conduct Code, the Principles of Community, or other institutional limits on student speech. These freedoms also do not excuse advancing poor arguments or shoddy research. To that end, student work will be evaluated by the instructor and penalized for failure to meet course and assignment expectations or to exemplify the highest standards of academic inquiry. The instructor reserves the right to challenge language or behavior in the class that is not productive to classroom discussion.

This class also acknowledges that the protections of the First Amendment and academic freedom have not been equitably distributed to all members of the university community due to historical, systemic, and structural barriers. In this course, we will work to redress these inequities. In accordance with university policy, if any member of the class feels that they have been treated unfairly because of their views, they should contact the instructor or the Student Resolution Center.

Final Takeaways

CSU both requires and celebrates a robust commitment to free speech and open inquiry.
Our mission is to produce and disseminate knowledge. Knowledge advances when all beliefs, ideas, and opinions are subject to scrutiny, investigation, and criticism. Assuming we know the truth before investigating it, or censoring those who would dare question us, turns our university away from its path of advancing knowledge.

CSU welcomes and supports students of all backgrounds and viewpoints on our campus and in our classrooms.
We can and must foster a climate of sensitivity and understanding for all members of our community, in particular those of historically oppressed and/or minoritized backgrounds, without resorting to censorship.

Our mission as instructors is balancing open inquiry and a positive classroom climate without sacrificing either. CLA fully supports you in your efforts to do so.