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FIRE Q&A: Stand Up For Speech Litigation Project Plaintiff Ross Abbott

On Tuesday, FIRE announced its latest lawsuit, this one against the University of South Carolina (USC), as part of its undefeated Stand Up For Speech Litigation Project.

One of the suit’s plaintiffs, Ross Abbott, is a USC senior majoring in business management and economics and minoring in psychology and pre-law; he is also president of the USC’s College Libertarians. He recently talked to FIRE about the importance of free speech on campus, how he tried to get USC to see it his way, and why he’s made the difficult decision to take his school to court.

Some questions and answers have been edited for length and clarity.

FIRE: Why did you decide to sue your school?

ABBOTT: The University of South Carolina was systematically eroding students’ free speech rights, among other rights, without really pause for “Is this legal?” or “Is this even right?” I saw the university doing things that I found deeply disturbing, both from a moral and a legal perspective, and I started doing what I could to try and address that.

FIRE: Like what?

Abbott: So, to start with, I reached out to the university about their speech codes.

They are writing what they called a new “social compact.” Right now we have the student code of conduct—you know, “no drinking,” so on and so forth. On top of that, we also have the Carolinian Creed: As a Carolinian I will fight bigotry, I will be a good student. I will not lie, cheat and steal.

Unfortunately, some of the language in that document includes things like, [to paraphrase], “As a Carolinian I will not say things that are intimidating or offensive or ridiculing,” or “A Carolinian must not make people feel uncomfortable.” Which is problematic in and of itself.

When I heard about that [the social compact] I thought, wow, that has the potential to be very damaging to students. I said, “I think students need some representation on that.” It can’t just be professors or university administrators dictating to students how they’re going to behave.

When I realized I was not going to be able to [participate effectively in the drafting process] I started talking to university administrators directly and said, “Look, we have this issue with our speech codes.”

But after waiting three weeks to get an appointment with one administrator, he or she would say that the compact wasn’t in their area of expertise, and they would send me to another administrator and three weeks later that person would say it wasn’t their area of expertise either. I was just really being led around the administrative carousel while strapped with red tape.

In those conversations, I was bringing things like news clips of universities being sued for their speech codes; I was bringing FIRE cases to say, “Look, this is what’s going on. These are why this is the legal precedent showing you why our speech codes are bad and these need to be changed.” And nobody seemed super interested in that. But I was slowly making my way up the administrative chain.

That was up until the Yale and University of Missouri protests started, and I saw that free speech on campus wasn’t just something I was passionate about. It was something that was making headlines across the country. I wanted to try and put on an educational [event] along those lines on my campus.

So I, as president of College Libertarians, in conjunction with [the student chapter of] Young Americans for Liberty, put on an educational free speech event on campus.

[We] look[ed] up several of FIRE’s cases, past and present, [to] find examples of times that students at other universities or faculty at other universities had been censored, and then [proposed] to take all those messages that had gotten students censored at other schools and put them all in one place at the same time. So that’s what we did.

We looked up former FIRE cases like the Brandeis “wetback” incident, the swastika at [George Washington], things like that. Whatever image or message that had been censored in those cases, we took it and made it into a big poster so it would be eye-catching and try to draw people over to the table.

FIRE: You used the event to answer questions and spark dialogue about the free speech climate at USC given the national conversation about campuses around the country. What was the reaction to the event?

Abbott: We got mixed reactions. In addition to the images, we had FIRE writeups attached to images so the context was clear. The event also had a petition to sign a free speech pledge. We took the faculty free speech statement from Clemson—they’re our big rival school and I was not going to let them out-free-speech us—so we took the exact same letter, changed “Clemson” to “Carolina” in a couple places and had students sign onto that.

FIRE: What was the fallout from the event?

Abbott: Well, one thing to note in advance was that, anticipating this might be controversial, I had gotten prior administrative approval about two weeks in advance. Even though I didn't think we needed special permission, I told them I wanted them to be aware ahead of time in case they got calls on the day of the event. I showed the administrator the exact symbols and messages we were going to be publishing, because I don’t want you to turn around later and say you didn’t understand what we were trying to do. She said, “I understand this is exactly what you’re doing. I understand that you have the right to do that. Have fun. Here’s my approval stamp.”

FIRE: The event was approved without issue. But then the day after of the event you got a “Notice of Charge” and were called to a meeting?

Abbott: Three complaints had been filed against me and the organization. The complaints said the students were highly offended by the posters, which were also “triggering.”

FIRE: And you had to go to meetings with an administrator to explain the images—which had prior approval. What did USC say might be the consequences if they decided you did something wrong?

Abbott: They said it could be anything from having to attend mandatory education classes, to suspension or expulsion, which, obviously, is very scary for a senior who needs to graduate on time since I’m headed to law school next fall.

FIRE: What do you say to people who don’t think those images should’ve been on campus?

Abbott: Well what’s interesting is that it was clearly a free speech event. [We had a poster with]  the famous quote: “I disapprove of what you say, but I will defend to the death your right to say it.” And anybody that would come and ask about [anything offensive], we would explain, “We don’t support this message.”

And for those who might call me anti-Semitic or homophobic, I am Jewish and my parents are gay. So, that’s an interesting twist.

I’m a libertarian. I think all people—regardless of skin color or gender orientation, gender association, race, ethnicity, or any given qualification—I think that all people are equal and really should be judged on their merits.

FIRE: What has it been like to sue your school?

Abbott: I [didn’t] want to have to do this. I went to the university to get [changes made within the system]. I told the university that their policies were blatantly illegal and unconstitutional on their face.

The university didn’t care. They didn’t want to listen. They kicked me around the pipeline, and when I finally did get to talk to anybody, they didn’t listen.

I want[ed] the university to change and to respect students’ rights regardless of what the students are trying to say, regardless of who the students are as far as their background.

FIRE: What are you fighting for, in your Stand Up For Speech suit?

Abbott: Ultimately, as a pre-law student headed to law school, I as an individual am legally mindful. When I got that disciplinary letter in the mail, I knew what to do about it. I knew who to talk to. I knew where to get representation. I knew how to defend myself. But there have been cases on campus where students got very similar letters and did not know how to defend themselves and just caved to the university pressure. I am sticking up for those people. My end goal is to get these policies changed, so that no other student in the future has to go through what I’m going through.

No student should have to go to a meeting to have to answer for their constitutionally protected speech just because it offends someone. If students had to go to a meeting for everything they said that somebody somewhere found offensive, they’d spend more time in meetings than they would in class.

And that’s what, ultimately, I’m fighting for. I want the university to change their policies. I want the university to obey the Constitution. And [do it] more than just because they legally have to. I want the university to have some respect for the overarching principles, the moral value of freedom of speech. Especially in a university setting that is supposed to be open to the free exchange of ideas.

FIRE: What has it been like working with FIRE?

Abbott: FIRE’s been wonderful. From the very beginning, FIRE got back to me very quickly.

I came to FIRE and just said, “This is what’s going on. How can you help?” And FIRE has been so supportive in every single possible aspect.

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