Two student groups learned this unfortunate lesson in November 2015 when they tried to host an educational outdoor event about free speech rights on college campuses. They researched examples of speech that was unconstitutionally censored by colleges across the country and used the examples they found to create visual case studies for discussion with passersby on campus.
“We really tried to show the message that, hey, once you give universities the power to decide what’s appropriate and what’s not, they end up abusing that power,” said Michael Kriete, president of the USC chapter of Young Americans for Liberty.
After the event, three students filed formal complaints with USC. They claimed that some of the posters the student groups displayed were “offensive” and “triggering.” USC reacted to the complaints by serving Ross Abbott, president of the USC College Libertarians, with a “Notice of Charge” letter and launching an investigation for “discrimination.” The USC administration threatened him with punishment up to and including expulsion for the protected expression he and Michael used as part of their event.
Despite the fact that USC approved the student groups’ event beforehand, USC still demanded that Ross meet with an administrator and answer for each poster by justifying the message that he and the others were trying to send. Two weeks later, Ross was notified that the investigation was being dropped, but the USC administration refused to reform the university’s policies that infringe on First Amendment rights, including a policy that limits all expressive activity on campus to unconstitutional “free speech zones.”
“Right now, we have an environment where students and faculty members all feel that if you say something that somebody else disagrees with, that you are going to have, or may have to, answer for it, and that’s a problem,” said Ross. “It’s a problem for the free exchange of ideas. It’s a problem for everything college is supposed to be.”
That’s why Ross and the USC campus chapters of Young Americans for Liberty and College Libertarians filed a First Amendment lawsuit against USC on February 23, 2016—to make it clear that there can be “No Limits” on student free speech rights on public college campuses.