Free Speech, Civil Discourse and Peaceful Assembly

A vital academic climate requires, and thus the college protects and promotes, the exchange of ideas and search for truth. SUNY Oswego respects and fulfills the guarantees of free speech under the U.S. Constitution. To that end, we support assembly, debate, and discourse outside of the classroom on all manner of issues. Members of the SUNY Oswego community will have different perspectives and ideas, which may conflict. Our role is not to shield people from ideas and opinions with which they disagree or are potentially offensive.

Our commitment to free speech stems from our legal obligations, as well as a dedication to an open academic climate. The First Amendment to the U.S. Constitution affirms, with rare exceptions, the rights of individuals and groups to communicate virtually any idea, regardless of how widely shared or accepted by others it may be. College policy cannot supersede the federal or state constitutions. In fact, restricting any individual’s or group’s speech solely on the basis of it being controversial, upsetting, or even abhorrent, is antithetical to the First Amendment. Narrowly tailored restrictions that are content and viewpoint-neutral may be allowed in order to protect a significant interest. In the case of SUNY Oswego, this means the college can determine the time, place, and manner of speech so as to ensure minimal interference with the operation of the college, its provision of services, and people’s access to it.

The same legal obligations to provide a safe environment for constitutionally-protected speech also protect the rights of protestors. Community members have the right to respond to a controversial speaker through actions such as talking, circulating literature, displaying signs, and singing. Others might choose to ignore the speaker in order to to deny them the attention they seek. The law does not, however, give individuals the right to threaten a speaker, commit any violent act against a speaker, or create a situation in which the speaker cannot be heard. Ultimately, critics cannot silence that with which they disagree-no matter how strongly they may disagree.

Ultimately, SUNY Oswego strives to ensure a safe environment for all constitutionally-protected speech, regardless of its content or viewpoint. For this reason, the college will remain a neutral venue and provide the same level of safety and respect to all speakers.


  1. "Demonstration" - A person or assembly of persons engaged in a rally, march, sit-in, fast or other public manifestation of welcome, approval, protest, or disapproval but does not include social, or athletic exhibitions or events.
  2. "Non-University affiliated speaker" - A person not enrolled as a student nor employed by the university who addresses or intends to address persons on the campus grounds or in a facility of the university.
  3. "Registered student organization" - A student organization properly registered with the office of campus life pursuant to rules of the SUNY Oswego Student Handbook.
    1. "University department" - Any officially recognized section of the university's organizational structure.
    2. "Sound amplification equipment" - Any device used to amplify sound.
  4. Student Rights. Student rights regarding freedom of expression are enumerated with the Student Handbook primarily under sections labeled as “Bill of Rights,” “Expression,” and “Protest.”

I. Designated Public Forum

  1. The College has designated the following area as a public forum for third party free speech. The south side of the recessed concrete surface in the academic quad between Hewitt Hall, Mahar Hall, and Lanigan Hall, commonly known as “The Sundial,” not including the sidewalks surrounding The Sundial (see Appendix A). The south side of The Sundial is one of the most highly trafficked areas on campus by students, faculty, staff, and visitors. No electronic amplification of sound is permitted in the academic quad, which includes The Sundial, due to the proximity of academic buildings in which classes are held. The risk of interfering with classroom instruction is too great to allow for the use of electronic amplification methods.  Therefore, the use of electronically amplified sound is not permitted in the academic quad on class days from the time classes begin in the morning through the time that classes end in the evening.
  2. In implementing this policy, the College weighs competing obligations and responsibilities:
    1. to meet its legal obligations as a public entity to provide a designated public forum for free speech by third parties;
    2. to meet audit and control responsibilities in managing New York State property under College jurisdiction;
    3. to provide for the orderly and safe operation of the College campus;
    4. to responsibly manage and allocate College resources in pursuit of its educational mission.
  3. The College has determined specific time periods when the use of its campus or facilities, including outdoor spaces, are reserved exclusively for College-related activities that are at the core of the primary educational mission of the College.  During these periods, no third party shall be permitted to reserve or use the designated public forum for free speech purposes:
    1. during our student orientation days and opening weekends for the summer, fall and spring semesters;
    2. during reading and examination periods as set forth in the then current academic calendar;
    3. during graduation-related activities and events including winter and spring commencement days;
    4. during major campus-wide celebrations and events such as Quest, Family and Friends Weekend, and Honors Convocation.
  4. The College reserves the right to terminate any use of the designated public forum in the event either the speaker or a member(s) of an audience engages in conduct that violates the SUNY Rules for the Maintenance of Public Order, adopted in accordance with Education Law Section 6430 and 8 NYCRR 535, in order to secure the orderly and operation of the Campus for the safety of the entire Campus Community

II. Invited Speakers and Events

  1. Non-university affiliated speakers must be sponsored by a university department or by a registered student organization.
  2. The sponsoring organization will submit a request to invite a non-university affiliated speaker to the appropriate supervisor. This is done in order to get budgetary approval, schedule an appropriate space, determine personnel and security needs, and other administrative work if necessary. The college will only make a determination based on the aforementioned criteria and not on the basis of content or viewpoint, so long as it is considered protected speech.
  3. In all instances, those sponsoring speakers are responsible for making the necessary provisions to maintain the peaceful demeanor of the assembly, including the arrangements for marshals or other self-governing services in cooperation with the assigned university security personnel.
  4. These events may be ticketed events and first priority for these tickets will go SUNY Oswego students, followed by SUNY Oswego faculty and staff.
  5. The university will neither permit nor condone unlawful action. Civil disobedience as a means to produce change is always a matter of individual conscience and consequence. Please see the SUNY Rules for the Maintenance of Public Order for guidance.
  6. Signs. Signs attached to rigid supports or framework are prohibited inside campus buildings.

III. Use of College Facilities for Free Speech by Third Parties

  1. The College campus may be used for free speech purposes by third parties pursuant to the delegation of authority by the SUNY Board of Trustees (SUNY Policy #5603 - Use of Facilities by Non-Commercial Organizations). The College reserves the right to determine the time, place, and manner of assembly or presentation in order to protect against probable disruption to the continuity and quality of the educational process both in and out of class. The College also reserves the right to protect the community when there is a reasonable and articulable risk to the safety of individuals and property.
  2.  The College recognizes an obligation to provide a free speech area of the campus for use by third parties (not part of or sponsored by the College or a registered student organization).  This policy applies to third parties and does not apply to the College's students, speakers officially sponsored by registered student groups, faculty or staff. The rights of students, faculty and staff regarding free speech are included in the Regulations and Procedures for Maintaining Public Order on Campuses of the State University of New York, the Code of Student Rights, Responsibilities and Conduct, and the Bill of Rights and Responsibilities for Faculty, Students, Administrators, Staff and College Council at Oswego, all of which are contained in the Student Handbook.
  3. As a public entity partially funded by New York State tax dollars, the College will provide a designated public forum to third parties for the exercise of all protected speech, barring reasonable time, place and manner restrictions.  Any use that may create a reasonable time or space issue must go through the reservation system (see Section III. 4). Reservations for the designated forum will be addressed on a first-come, first served basis. Spontaneous gatherings are exempt from reserving the space but are still regulated by the requirements in Section I and the SUNY Rules for the Maintenance of Public Order.
  4. Third parties planning to use the space designated as a public forum for third party free speech must complete a designated public forum application and file the application with the Department of Campus Events and Conference Services three (3) business days before the date when the applicant wants to use the designated public forum space.  Completed applications should be sent or hand delivered to:

Department of Campus Events and Conference Services
135 Marano Campus Center
SUNY Oswego
Oswego, NY  13126

Applications received after 3 pm on a given business day shall be considered as having been received on the morning of the next business day. The applicant assumes responsibility for proper and timely completion and delivery of an application to the Office of Campus Life. The College shall review the application and respond to the applicant no later than the close of business on the third business day prior to the date the applicant wants to use the designated public forum.

  1. if the application is completed fully and signed by the applicant, and the date and time are available for use, the College shall inform the applicant of its approval to use the designated forum on the date and time so requested. 
  2. if the application is not complete and/or it is not signed, the College shall return the application to the applicant for completion.  The three (3) business days' time period will begin running again once the completed and signed application is received by the Office of Campus Life
  3. if space is already reserved to its capacity for the date and time requested, or if the date and time requested is during a "blackout period" as defined above, the College shall inform the applicant of the same and offer the applicant the next available date and time for the use of the space
  4. The College shall not:
    1. inquire as to the nature or content of the free speech;
    2. charge the applicant an application fee to reserve the designated public forum;
    3. charge the applicant/third party for the use of the space;
    4. impose insurance requirements on the applicant/third party; or
    5. charge the applicant for any additional costs to the College that the College may incur due to the use of the space by the applicant/third party, such as security.
  5. The applicant/third party shall:
    1. Be responsible for any costs for parking on the campus;
    2. Be responsible for picking up from the designated public forum any brochures, pamphlets, leaflets or other handouts or goods that the third party speaker brings to the campus to disseminate during his/her speech, and properly disposing of the same in public recycling or trash receptacles or taking them with him/her; or pay for reasonable costs to the College for clean-up; and;
    3. Not use a megaphone or electronic equipment for the amplification of sound
  6. Disruption. As noted SUNY Oswego has a responsibility to both honor Freedom of Expression, but also protect against those that may restrict such expression in a limited public forum. Disruption of an event, speaker, through such actions such as interfering with ingress or egress from College facilities, heckling or shouting down a speaker, damaging property, etc. is not allowed. In the event of such activities, the violator will be asked to leave the event. If they do not leave, they will be escorted from the event. For ideas about responding to controversial speech, see Appendix B.

Appendix A. Designated Public Forum

map of SUNY Oswego campus

Appendix B. Responding to Controversial Speech

SUNY Oswego is committed to the free exchange of ideas. To that end, you are likely to encounter ideas to which you object during your time on campus. When a controversial speaker comes to campus, you may want to make your disagreement to speaker’s ideas clear.  Sometimes, individuals respond to controversial speech with what is known as the heckler’s veto. The heckler’s veto refers to an effort to stop (veto) a speaker by shouting (heckling) while the individual is on stage thus making it impossible for the audience to hear the speaker’s message. While shouting down a speaker may feel cathartic, it is one of the least effective means of countering a speaker. It does not offer competing ideas, makes it easy for the speaker and others to dismiss you/your position, and will lead to your removal from the event. In place of the heckler’s veto, we encourage SUNY Oswego students to consider the following options designed to engage, reject, or counter the ideas of a speaker. Each of these tactics serves a different purpose and will be effective in different situations. Think carefully about your goals as well as your resources in crafting a response to a controversial speaker.

Engage the Speaker

We encourage students to research and develop their own opinions on the issues of the day. This process includes understanding the logic and reasoning behind positions with which you disagree. When a speaker comes to campus, you have an opportunity to engage an individual about their views rather than relying on news coverage, academic research, or the words of others. Engaging the speaker respectfully allows you to demonstrate to the speaker and others in attendance a different perspective along with providing an opportunity to learn more about or reveal flaws in the speaker’s position. The tactics listed below require preparation and should be undertaken in good faith and with respect for the speaker and audience.

  • Participate in the Q&A period: Most speakers allow time for questions at the end of an event. Ask a well-researched, thoughtful question that calls on the speaker to explain or defend their views in light of other research or implications that you can see. Taking advantage of this opportunity requires you to have a strong grasp of the issue as well as of the position held by the speaker. If the speaker is an author, read their recent work. If it is a political candidate, review their literature or watch interviews.
  • Ask to join a student meet & greet: Many speakers brought to the campus meet with a smaller group of students during their trip. Ask if you can be part of that group. Taking advantage of this opportunity allows you to engage in a direct conversation with an individual with whom you disagree in order to understand their position as well as offering your own. This option again requires you to prepare in advance.

Reject the Speaker

While there are some speakers whose ideas you want to interrogate to better understand why and how they came to a particular position, there may be other speakers whose ideas you want to clearly reject in a way where the rejection is clear to all in attendance. Numerous strategies allow you to reject the ideas of a speaker while still respecting the individual’s right to speak. These strategies require coordination, preparation, and self-control.

  • Walk-out: Sit quietly and wait for the event to begin. At a pre-determined point or with a signal, a group of individuals rise and walk out in silence. The impact of this strategy hinges on having a large group of participants ready to act in concert. Walking out sends a clear sign that you (and the others who walk out) reject the message of the speaker and leaves a smaller audience for the event.
  • Turning your back: Similar to the walk-out, a group of individuals simultaneously turning away from the speaker sends a clear signal to the speaker and audience that you reject the speaker’s message. This strategy also requires a large group of well-organized participants who act in concert. It should be selected in place of the walk-out when physically leaving a space is particularly challenging OR when you want to simultaneously hear and object to the speaker.
  • Ticket buy out: Speakers seek an audience for their ideas. Reject their views by denying them an audience. For ticketed events, arrange with others who object to the message to get tickets. Then, simply do not attend leaving the speaker with largely empty chairs.

Counter the Ideas

The previous strategies listed hinge on the speaker. In most cases, however, the ideas rather than the speaker are what you object to. Our constitutional commitment to free speech stems in part from the belief that the best way to counter the positions we object to is by offering other positions. Good ideas draw attention and consensus while bad ideas fall out of circulation. The following strategies provide means of countering rather than engaging or rejecting the speaker’s ideas.

  • Protest outside the event: While you may not interfere with individuals seeking to enter or exit the location where the event is held, you may stage a protest with signs or chants. Both signs and chants provide a way to signal that you hold a different position that the speaker and send a signal that can be easily picked up by the media and bystanders. Protests will not, however, persuade the undecided nor do they offer a space for thoughtful or analytical discourse.
  • Visibility Campaigns: The group hosting a speaker often runs a promotional campaign with fliers or posters. Run a counter visibility campaign focused on (1) your objection to the speaker’s ideas, (2) ideas you believe make more sense than those of the speaker, or (3) promote counter-programming.
  • Counter-programming: Plan a competing event. For maximum impact, the event can occur at the exact time as the speaker to which you object. This programming might take many forms. You might invite a speaker who holds a different position or arrange for a teach-in or speak-out within the campus community. These events provide an opportunity to have an extended discussion about the issue at hand and can focus on specific perspectives or a range of ideas.