Free Speech, Hate Speech, and the Hostile Speech Environment

Invoking 42 U.S.C. § 1983 to protect free speech rights, this Note proposes a new cause of action: the hostile speech environment claim. This claim is necessary to combat the continuing infringement of hate speakers’ First Amendment rights by public colleges and universities. After Part I reviews relevant case law to prove that hate speech is afforded First Amendment protection, Part II examines how and why public colleges and universities persist in regulating constitutionally protected hate speech. Part III explains and justifies the proposed hostile speech environment cause of action. Refuting the argument that hostile work environment law can support an analogous “hostile academic environment” claim against campus hate speakers, this Note draws the opposite inference: more protection of hate speech is needed if public universities are to abide by the First Amendment. Thus, this Note borrows from Title VII employment discrimination law to sketch the hostile speech environment claim. It consists of three elements: (1) severe or pervasive hostility (2) by the government (3) towards protected speech. Two strands of First Amendment law provide the claim’s constitutional foundation: the freedom of thought that inheres in the freedom of speech and the captive audience doctrine. Notably, nothing in its analytical mechanics restricts this new cause of action to higher education, which may lead some to argue that it opens the possibility for waves of First Amendment litigation against government speech and policy. Any such fear is illusory, however. The cause of action’s “severe or pervasive hostility” prong and the practical realities of other contexts—such as secondary education and the government workplace—make it unlikely that hostile speech environment claims could apply to other arenas.