The University of South Carolina recognized a campus chapter of the free speech group Uncensored America after FIRE wrote the university explaining that its initial denial appeared to impermissibly discriminate against the group’s viewpoint. As a public university, USC is bound by the First Amendment to respect students’ expressive and associational rights — including approving student clubs using viewpoint-neutral criteria.
USC administrators initially responded in late January to Uncensored America’s application for recognition with a request that the group consult with another free speech group on campus, Free Speech Forum, to see if Uncensored America could fold its work into Free Speech Forum’s mission. On that basis, administrators outright rejected the application, reiterating their belief that Uncensored America’s presence on campus was overlapping and therefore unnecessary.
The two groups’ missions differed significantly, however. Uncensored America wanted to hold a few large events on campus with outside speakers, while Free Speech Forum held smaller weekly events focused on student debate.
USC, to its credit, almost immediately reversed course after our letter and said that its denial of recognition resulted from a miscommunication.
Of course, USC cannot reject a group’s recognition based on that group’s purported similarity to an existing student group on campus, as we explained in our March 1 letter to the university. USC recognizes numerous groups with similar missions, further suggesting viewpoint discrimination against Uncensored America was at play, as administrators appeared to single out the group because of its purported similarity to Free Speech Forum.
For example, USC has a variety of student organizations focused on women’s rights, such as Women for Global Empowerment, Girl Up, and Planned Parenthood Generation Action. Speaking of Planned Parenthood, its mission appears quite similar to another student group, Emergency Contraceptive for All. And Green Geeks and Sustainable Carolina both promote environmental sustainability.
As we argue in our letter, this diversity of clubs is a feature, not a bug, of the university’s campus life:
The vast number of student groups USC has recognized is a testament to the diversity of its student body. While administrators may not agree with the viewpoints or expressive activities of all these groups, their existence is made possible by decades of capable administrators recognizing the value of fostering a diverse and vibrant collection of student clubs.
The Supreme Court has held that when a public university makes decisions on the basis of a group’s viewpoint, it “risks the suppression of free speech and creative inquiry in one of the vital centers for the nation’s intellectual life, its college and university campuses.”
USC, to its credit, almost immediately reversed course after our letter and said that its denial of recognition resulted from a miscommunication. Uncensored America obtained recognition this week.
Mark this down as a victory for student expressive rights — and for USC’s campus community.
FIRE defends the rights of students and faculty members — no matter their views — at public and private universities and colleges in the United States. If you are a student or a faculty member facing investigation or punishment for your speech, submit your case to FIRE today. If you’re a faculty member at a public college or university, call the Faculty Legal Defense Fund 24-hour hotline at 254-500-FLDF (3533). If you’re a college journalist facing censorship or a media law question, call the Student Press Freedom Initiative 24-hour hotline at 717-734-SPFI (7734).