FIRE Statement on Fourth Circuit’s Decision in ‘Abbott v. Pastides’
FIRE is disappointed by yesterday’s ruling from the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Fourth Circuit denying relief to a University of South Carolina (USC) student and two student organizations who were investigated for holding a free speech event on campus. The event was pre-approved by a USC administrator and featured information about free speech controversies on other campuses across the country, including the controversial expression involved. After several students complained to USC about seeing offensive words and symbols at the event, the student organizer of the event was sent a letter labeled a “Notice of Charge,” summoned to a meeting with an administrator two weeks later, and made to wait two more weeks to learn that he, the College Libertarians, and Young Americans for Liberty would not be charged with violating the college’s policy banning discrimination and harassment.
In its decision, the three-judge panel opined that this series of events would not have deterred students of “ordinary firmness” from holding similar events going forward, since the university did not ultimately punish them at the end of the month-long process. The panel also accepted USC’s claims that calling the summons to meet with the administration a “Notice of Charge” was a “clerical error,” and the lower court’s conclusion that the mandatory meeting was an appropriately tailored means of investigating harassment allegations.
The court also stated 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.” However, FIRE continues to believe that students should not have to fear month-long inquiries into protected speech, and that the First Amendment does not allow such behavior by government authorities.
The plaintiffs are considering their options for responding to the decision.