Communicating About Freedom of Expression on Campus

Freedom of expression is essential to achieving the University's mission. The concept—and related ideas such as academic freedom—is at the core of instruction and discovery. It’s our commitment and constitutional obligation as a public institution to invite new ideas, different worldviews, and open dialogues that challenge us and our students. 

With that said, the University of Minnesota unequivocally condemns speech that supports prejudice and discrimination, even if, under the U.S. Constitution, it must legally provide space for such protected speech (i.e., speech that is not directly threatening toward individuals or groups). 

As a result, our commitments and obligations may intersect or directly conflict with members of our community and the public who have very different beliefs and values than those represented on our campuses. For example:

  • A unit or college invites a speaker who discusses ideas or a point of view others find unethical or abhorrent. How will the unit, college, or campus respond to criticism about why they invited such a speaker?
  • A University-affiliated student group sponsors a conference in which the identities of other groups are questioned or criticized. How will the unit closest to the student group respond if pushed about how such an event could be allowed?
  • An event sponsored by a unit or college is protested by various community members. How does the unit, college, or campus respond to media inquiries?

Effective and considerate communication at the right level of the University can help inform others about our obligations under the U.S. Constitution, University policies and practices and the resources available to members of our campus communities. The following is meant to guide units or colleges faced with questions, criticism, or protests as they consider how to respond to these types of incidents.


Immediate considerations
Media interest
Counsel and support
Resources for those affected by negative speech
Related resources
University communication examples

Immediate considerations

  1. Is this your issue to communicate about? Consult with your local communications leader, who will involve campus or system communications leadership (i.e., University Relations in the Twin Cities) as needed. 
  2. If you believe a response is your team’s responsibility, consider the following:
    1. Have you been asked to comment? If there has not been a specific request, carefully consider whether it’s necessary to respond. Note, it may be helpful in some instances to anticipate the potential need for communication (e.g., because of a protest threat or a particularly high-profile and controversial event) and to develop a plan and language in advance of requests for a response.
    2. If communicating is necessary, who should communicate? In many cases, the most appropriate and effective response will come from an individual at a level closest to the audience. If a response comes from a leader, it’s important to remember that it may be viewed as an official position (e.g., a dean’s communication may be viewed as representing all faculty and staff in that college if the message is framed broadly). In select instances, such as a legal or public safety issue related to protest and free speech or the University’s stance on free speech generally, the voice of the University, the president, a chancellor, or other senior leaders may be a better fit. Each campus’ central communications team is available to advise local leaders and communicators. 
  3. In preparing the communication, consider the following principles while consulting closely with University Relations in the Twin Cities or your campus communications leader. These principles promote greater consistency in University communication while being adaptable to each situation’s unique needs.
    1. Consider your/the University’s previous approaches to communicating about freedom of expression and be familiar with University policies. Your local or campus communications leader and the statement library from University Relations in the Twin Cities are good resources.
    2. Consider which University colleagues need to be aware of the situation and your plans to communicate (e.g., department/unit heads, deans, governance leaders, provost, general counsel, VPs, president, or chancellor).
    3. Determine the necessary audience. Start small with those who have made inquiries. You can always broaden the audience but cannot pull back a message that was too broadly distributed at the start.
    4. Discuss the best way to communicate to those audiences. Email or other written materials may not be the most effective in some cases. Consider the feasibility and appropriateness of more direct and personal communication.
    5. Determine what needs to be communicated. If there are no specific actions, policies, resources, or positions on the issue to provide, reconsider whether communicating is necessary.
    6. Remember that experience with and attitudes toward speech vary widely within stakeholder groups—not just between students, faculty, and staff. Consider this as you make word and tone choices. An honest and empathetic voice often works best. Also, consider who else may be represented by the communication. A statement on behalf of a unit or college technically represents that unit’s or college’s faculty and staff.
    7. In situations when free speech raises concern or anxiety among your stakeholders, it may be appropriate to connect them to campus resources or mental health support (listed later on this web page).

Media Interest

Central communications teams on each campus or University Relations on the Twin Cities campus for the System rarely provide official statements on specific events or speakers unless the situation has been elevated through public discussion or inquiry, media interest, or a visible protest.

If an official University or campus statement is needed, central communications teams will work with local leaders and communicators as appropriate to ensure the situation is accurately represented and that relevant teams are aware of the University’s plans. In these instances, statements about the University’s position will likely include the president, chancellor, provost, or others.

Counsel and Support

University Relations/campus communications leads

Resources for Those Affected by Negative Speech

As outlined above, the University condemns speech that supports prejudice and discrimination, even if the Constitution legally provides space for protected speech (i.e., speech that is not directly threatening toward individuals or groups). Per University policy, members of the University community are entitled to “an environment … that actively acknowledges and values equity and diversity and is free from racism, sexism, ageism, homophobia, and other forms of prejudice, intolerance, or harassment.”

If protected speech is inconsistent with these values, communication can be difficult to balance in a way that satisfies every audience. One opportunity in such situations is to support members of the University community who are affected by negative speech or to offer opportunities for the presentation or discussion of other opinions. The following may also be helpful:

Reporting Threats to Individuals or Public Safety

  • Emergency: 911 
  • Crookston: 218-281-8530
  • Duluth: 218-726-7000 
  • Morris: 320-287-1601
  • Rochester: Security provided by Best Crowd Management: 507-281-4952 
  • Twin Cities
    • University of Minnesota Police Department dispatch: 612-624-3550
    • Non-emergency dispatch: 612-624- COPS (2677)
    • Anonymous tip line: 612-624-TIPS (8477)

Discrimination and Harassment

People systemwide who believe they have been discriminated against or harassed based on a protected class or identity should report misconduct to the Bias Response and Referral Network (BRRN). BRRN includes representatives from the Office for Equity and Diversity, Office of Equal Opportunity and Title IX, and the Office of the General Counsel that will refer incident reports to appropriate campus offices. 

Student Affairs

Campus student affairs officials can address concerns about student group-sponsored activities, related policies, and potential violations of the Student Conduct Code:

Academic Affairs

Students may also be encouraged to contact the following academic officials if the concern is related to academic performance or University-sponsored activities.

Mental Health Support

Faculty and staff systemwide: 

  • Employee Assistance Program 612-624-8647 or 800-756-2363,


Related Resources

Related policies

Several University of Minnesota policies reaffirm the right to free expression.

Before planning an event, we encourage reading through the University’s policies regarding event management and planning. 

Higher Ed Reference

Other universities that have taken a comprehensive approach to communicating about free speech may also offer additional perspectives. The following resources are provided as examples to inform our thinking and should not be considered an endorsement or only approach to this issue.