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Speech Code of the Month: University of Southern California

By January 9, 2019

Each of the over 450 colleges and universities in FIRE’s Spotlight database is updated annually for a reason — policies frequently change from year to year, and not always for the better.

During a recent update of the University of Southern California’s entry, we found that the school changed a policy over the summer to now force students to get permission two weeks in advance before holding any sort of demonstration on campus. This incredibly burdensome requirement bumped USC from an overall “yellow light” rating to our worst, “red light” rating, and is FIRE’s Speech Code of the Month for the month of January.

Previously, students at USC were told making prior arrangements regarding demonstrations was “recommended” and that reservations were merely “encouraged.” Now, USC’s Free Expression and Dissent policy says: “Reservations and prior arrangements are required for campus demonstrations,” and that “representatives of the sponsoring organization wishing to stage a demonstration must complete an Outdoor Event Questionnaire and a USC Event Permit Application at least two weeks prior to the demonstration.” This is an unacceptable amount of time for students to have to wait in order to express themselves on campus.

USC is a private university, but it clearly promises its students free speech rights in its policies, and it needs to live up those promises. Specifically, USC says it is committed an environment “where free inquiry and expression are encouraged and celebrated,” and that students “have the right to hold a demonstration.”

Under First Amendment standards, universities may put in place reasonable “time, place, and manner restrictions” on where and when demonstrations can take place on campus in order to limit disruptions to regular college activities and functions. However, forcing students to apply for a permit two weeks in advance in order to conduct all sorts of demonstrations —  whether involving a group of three people or one of three hundred — is nowhere near reasonable.

Promising students that they’ll have the right to hold a demonstration is meaningless and misleading when students are prevented from actually reacting to current and still-unfolding events in the moment. USC must revise this policy so that students are not discouraged from protesting altogether by a burdensome permit application process, and so that students can instead conduct spontaneous expressive activities on campus.

If USC truly “recognizes the crucial importance of preserving First Amendment rights,” as it claims, it needs to start acting like it.

If you believe that your college’s or university’s policy should be a Speech Code of the Month, please email speechcodes@thefire.org with a link to the policy and a brief description of why you think attention should be drawn to this code.

If you are a current college student or faculty member interested in free speech, consider joining FIRE’s Student Network or Faculty Network to connect with a coalition of college students and faculty members dedicated to advancing individual liberties on their campuses.

Schools: University of Southern California