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The Danger of Policies

A year ago, FIRE became involved in a case at the University of Southern California when a performer and later protestors were censored for speaking and displaying the word ‘fuck.’ Ironically, the performer and students were silenced while standing in USC’s free speech zone. Not only did USC maintain a free speech zone policy, but it seemed that even within that zone, administrators wanted to control the content of speech.

FIRE sent a letter of concern to USC, and the school quickly responded. Lori S. White, Associate Vice President for Students Affairs, ensured FIRE of USC’s commitment to freedom of speech. Concerning the maintenance of a free speech zone, White wrote:

USC’s policies on freedom of speech and expression do not limit free speech to any particular place or space on campus. Students are free to exercise their free speech rights anywhere, and without prior permission, provided such engagement does not disrupt or substantially interfere with the regular and essential operations of the university and does not violate the rights of others. We have designated Trojan Square specifically as a place for members of the university to engage in civil discourse so that we can ensure that there will always be a dedicated venue on campus for members of the university community to gather and to engage in such dialogue.

Even before we received White’s letter, Michael L. Jackson, Vice President for Student Affairs, published an open letter in the Daily Trojan responding to the incident, expressing the university’s commitment to free expression, and informing the students of their right to free expression and dissent.

Today, in the Daily Trojan, USC freshman John Wheeler wrote an opinion piece encouraging students to exercise their right to freedom of speech and to use debate to counter opinions and arguments with which they disagree. Wheeler also wrote that students should protest the free speech zone on USC’s campus. He wrote, “Fight back, if you can, against the university policies that prevent students from protesting and preaching wherever they want.”

The portion of USC’s “Policy on Free Expression and Dissent” that discusses the free speech zone reads:

While free speech is exercised everywhere on campus, the university has designated Trojan Square as the location for the campus to engaged [sic] in civil discourse. All university faculty, staff, students, organizations and non-university individuals may exercise their free speech rights in Trojan Square… without prior approval, provided such speech does not affect the scheduled activities in that area.

Lori White’s letter to FIRE clarifies that students may exercise their free speech rights throughout USC’s campus. However, the Policy on Free Expression and Dissent is worded ambiguously enough to lead at least one student to believe that certain types of discourse are limited to Trojan Square. If students believe that administrators limit public speaking and rallies, for example, to the Square, then this policy chills speech because of its vague wording. And if USC truly does not want to maintain a restrictive “free speech zone,” it should rewrite the misleading policy. Lori White’s clear statement about the nature of free speech on USC’s campus and about the special purpose of Trojan Square would be a great place to start.

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