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Institutional Approaches to Hate Speech

Christine McHugh, Esq., ARM
January 2024
Higher education institutions must balance legal responsibilities and educational priorities as they grapple with how to address student hate speech incidents.

Recent political conflicts and world events have led to an alarming amount of hate speech, both online and on campus. Hate speech is an unfortunate reality, so colleges and universities must prepare to respond.

As students learn and explore new ideas, they sometimes have extreme opinions. While educational institutions generally welcome intellectual exploration, open debate, and the passion that often comes with it, boundaries are critical to maintaining community civility and shared discourse.

Follow These Restrictions and Requirements

  • Public institutions must bear in mind that the First Amendment generally protects hate speech. As such, any responses to or limitations on hate speech at public institutions must observe the constitutional protections.
  • Private institutions don’t have these same limitations and may choose to ban hate speech entirely.
  • All institutions that receive federal financial assistance — both public and private — have a legal obligation to abide by Title VI of the Civil Rights Act of 1964. Title VI requires you to maintain an environment free from discrimination, including harassment, based on race, color, or national origin, including shared ancestry or ethnic characteristics (both actual and perceived characteristics).

    In November 2023, the Department of Education’s (ED’s) Office for Civil Rights (OCR) issued a Dear Colleague Letter reiterating the Title VI protections and the OCR’s expectations that:

    “Schools that receive federal financial assistance have a responsibility to address discrimination against Jewish, Muslim, Sikh, Hindu, Christian, and Buddhist students, or those of another religious group, when the discrimination involves racial, ethnic, or ancestral slurs or stereotypes; when the discrimination is based on a student’s skin color, physical features,
    or style of dress that reflects both ethnic and religious traditions; and when the discrimination is based on where a student came from or is perceived to have come from, including discrimination based on a student’s foreign accent; a student’s foreign name, including names commonly associated with particular shared ancestry or ethnic characteristics; or a student speaking a foreign language.”

    In this letter and prior guidance, OCR has held that schools must take immediate and appropriate action to respond to harassment that creates a hostile environment. Where the harassing conduct is “sufficiently severe, pervasive, or persistent so as to interfere with or limit the ability of an individual to participate in or benefit from the services, activities, or privileges” a school provides, Title VI requires the school to take “prompt and effective steps reasonably calculated to end the harassment, eliminate any hostile environment and its effects, and prevent harassment from recurring.”

Review Your Approach

Your institution should:


More From UE

Preventing and Responding to Campus Hate and Bias Incidents

Responding to Controversial Events on Campus: A United Educators Symposium

Minimize Unrest After Racially Charged Incidents Occur on Campus

Prepare for Violent Protests on Campus

Additional Resources

ED OCR Fact Sheet: Protecting Students from Discrimination Based on Shared Ancestry or Ethnic Characteristics

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