Published: Feb. 16, 2024

The Office of Institutional Equity and Compliance (OIEC) is responsible for educating about and addressing concerns under the Discrimination and Harassment Policy for the University of Colorado Boulder. OIEC is committed to fostering a safe and inclusive learning environment for our campus community. This guide will help students, faculty, staff and the broader community better understand the parameters by which OIEC enforces these policies and creates an equitable environment while respecting an individual’s right to free expression.

What is free speech and what is CU Boulder’s role in upholding it? 

Freedom of speech is the right of a person to articulate opinions and ideas verbally or symbolically without threat or reprisal. Unless it rises to the level of discrimination or harassment, as described below, speech that is hurtful, biased, or offensive in nature is generally protected by the First Amendment. 

Previous court rulings have deemed that restricting offensive or biased speech at public universities, like CU Boulder, would conflict with the First Amendment’s well established principles protecting freedom of expression. Consistent with these principles, CU Boulder has a long history of supporting freedom of speech and academic freedom, acting as a forum where competing ideas and perspectives can co-exist. Our campus encourages its students, faculty, and staff to challenge ideas through the exercise of reason and civil debate.

How discriminatory or harassing speech differs

Speech is not protected when it constitutes discrimination or harassment targeted at an individual or defined group of individuals based on protected-class identity

  • Discrimination occurs when an individual suffers an adverse consequence––such as being deprived of a resource, opportunity or benefit such as failure to be hired or denial of admission to an academic program––on the basis of protected class. 

  • Harassment is defined by unwelcome verbal or physical conduct related to one’s protected class that unreasonably interferes with an individual’s work or academic performance, or creates an intimidating or hostile work or educational environment.

How OIEC determines the difference

OIEC must review the initial evidence, context and requirements of the policy when an incident of unwelcome or offensive conduct is reported to our office. It applies university policies and federal regulatory guidance to determine whether the alleged conduct would constitute discrimination or harassment in violation of the policy. If so, OIEC follows the process articulated in the OIEC Resolutions Procedures.

It’s important to know that harmful or hateful speech that is found to not violate university policy is not endorsed by CU Boulder or OIEC. Our campus understands that this speech can be very impactful to members of our community.  At the same time, because our university is public, that doesn't mean it can be censored or punished. We recognize that this obligation can feel frustrating or challenging, particularly when what was said doesn’t align with university values. This tension is a difficult reality of being a public institution that must balance various rights and protections.

If you feel threatened by protected speech…

Regardless of whether OIEC is able to address conduct under the Discrimination and Harassment Policy, we can help people get connected with campus support resources when they have been impacted by harmful speech. One campus resource is the Office of Victim Assistance (OVA), which provides free and confidential trauma-specific counseling and advocacy for those impacted by traumatic experiences. A confidential resource like OVA can help people sort through their various rights and reporting options in a confidential setting, as well as discuss self-care and coping skills. OVA is available to students, graduate students, staff and faculty and its confidential services can be utilized by members of the campus community at any time.