This lawsuit is a part of FIRE’s Stand Up For Speech Litigation Project.
On November 23, 2015, the University of South Carolina’s (USC’s) College Libertarians and Young Americans for Liberty chapters held an outdoor event on free speech, displaying posters illustrating incidents of censorship at colleges and universities throughout the country. After the event, USC received three student complaints that some of the posters displayed were “offensive” and “triggering.” In response to the complaints, USC served Ross Abbott, one of the student organizers and president of USC’s College Libertarians, with a “Notice of Charge” letter. The university investigated Abbott and threatened him with punishment up to and including expulsion for “discrimination.”
The investigation against Abbott was dropped after Abbott met with an administrator from USC’s Office of Equal Opportunity Programs and answered for the students’ constitutionally protected speech.
Abbott, the College Libertarians, and the campus YAL chapter filed a lawsuit against USC because they did not want to see their peers punished for protected speech in the future. The lawsuit challenged a number of USC’s policies, including its free speech zone policy and USC’s vague and overbroad harassment policy. On August 16, 2018, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Fourth Circuit upheld dismissal of the lawsuit, ruling that USC’s investigation would not have deterred students of “ordinary firmness” from holding similar events in the future because the university ultimately did not punish the students. The panel noted that its decision was “limited to the facts before us, and the courthouse door remains open to the claims of students who experience cognizable restrictions on their right to free expression.”