Victory for Freedom of Speech at the University of Southern California

April 10, 2006

LOS ANGELES, April 10, 2006—The University of Southern California (USC) has publicly reaffirmed its commitment to freedom of speech and repudiated two instances of censorship. USC’s renewed embrace of liberty came after the intervention of the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education (FIRE).

“We are impressed with USC’s response,” said FIRE President Greg Lukianoff. “While we would prefer that universities not censor their students in the first place, a real willingness to address and repudiate censorship will go a long way toward restoring liberty on our campuses.”

The trouble at USC began in January when George Weiss Vando performed his one-man show ManLady. After receiving some complaints about Vando’s use of a profanity, a Student Affairs staff member shut down the performance, explaining that “we don’t want to offend anyone.” Administrators also asked some students who attempted to protest the censorship of Vando to lower their signs because they used “obscene” language. At least one such protestor was detained by campus security.

FIRE wrote to USC President Steven B. Sample on February 22, asking USC to publicly repudiate the staff member’s comments and to reaffirm its commitment to free speech. While USC is a private university, it is bound by California’s Leonard Law, which requires that state’s private, secular universities to grant their students the same free-speech rights they are guaranteed under the Constitution. USC’s own policies also promise its students expansive free-speech rights.

In response, Vice President for Student Affairs Michael L. Jackson published a March 6 open letter in USC’s student newspaper calling the censorship “[a] very unfortunate mistake in judgment” and stated that freedom of speech is “one of the most fundamental tenets of a university community.” Next, in a March 8 letter to FIRE, Associate Vice President for Student Affairs Lori White wrote that “our university continues to uphold the highest standard for free speech and expression” and promised to review USC’s troubling speech code.

“As John Stuart Mill pointed out in On Liberty, we all believe that some speech is wrong, or without value, but the most effective way to deal with speech that we dislike is with more speech,” Lukianoff noted. “USC should be commended for understanding and trusting in the ‘open marketplace of ideas’ rather than relying, as do too many universities, on repressive speech codes and suppression.”

FIRE is also watching USC to make certain that it does not backslide on its reaffirmation of freedom this week, when a student group hosts a display and panel discussion of the Danish cartoons of Mohammed. As has been widely reported, New York University muzzled a similar event on March 29.

“USC has a chance here to prove once again that it means its recent words,” Lukianoff concluded. “Given the recent encouraging developments, we believe USC will refuse to join NYU as an exemplar of censorship, and we look forward to seeing how things go this week.”

FIRE is a nonprofit educational foundation that unites civil rights and civil liberties leaders, scholars, journalists, and public intellectuals from across the political and ideological spectrum on behalf of individual rights, due process, freedom of expression, academic freedom, and rights of conscience at our nation’s colleges and universities. FIRE’s efforts to preserve liberty at the University of Southern California can be viewed at thefire.org/usc.

CONTACT:

Greg Lukianoff, President, FIRE: 215-717-3473; greg_lukianoff@thefire.org

Steven B. Sample, President, University of Southern California: 213-740-2111; presofc@usc.edu

Schools: New York University University of Southern California Cases: New York University: Suppression of Discussion of Mohammed Cartoons University of Southern California: Censorship of Performance and Protest