Speech Code of the Month: University of Southern California

January 9, 2012

FIRE announces its Speech Code of the Month for January 2012: the University of Southern California (USC).

USC’s policy on “Advertising, Promotion, and Literature Distribution” prohibits the posting or distribution of any printed materials that contain “derogatory language or material that is aimed at harming a specific person or an organization’s reputation.” This policy prohibits a large amount of expression protected by the First Amendment, including the kind of core political expression that lies at the heart of the First Amendment’s protections. Although USC is private, its policies “recognize[] the crucial importance of preserving First Amendment rights” and promise that “every member of the academic community shall enjoy the rights of free speech, peaceful assembly and the right of petition.” This policy is a serious breach of these promises (as well as a violation of California law, which requires secular private institutions to uphold students’ First Amendment rights).

As primary season kicks off, political speech is making headlines. Today, a political action committee (a “super PAC”) supporting Republican presidential candidate Newt Gingrich released a trailer for a 27-minute movie attacking fellow presidential hopeful Mitt Romney. In the trailer, Romney is referred to as, among other things, a “predatory corporate raider” and a “scavenger.” These attacks come after a super PAC supporting Romney ran a series of negative ads in Iowa that are widely perceived to have hurt Gingrich’s campaign. Among other things, the ads stated that Gingrich had “more baggage than the airlines.”

These types of criticisms are nothing new. Indeed, a video released by ReasonTV, which uses language from the 1800 U.S. presidential campaign, demonstrates that brutally harsh political campaigns are as old as American political campaigns themselves.

Under USC’s policy, all of this political speech, old and new, would be prohibited. This is because, for better or for worse, much political campaigning is an effort to “harm a specific person’s reputation”—that of one’s opponent. And unless it is unprotected libel, this type of speech is protected by the First Amendment. Indeed, if a political candidate believes her opponent to be unfit for office, she has every right to share that information with the voting public; this is an important component of political expression.

With the road to the 2012 elections heating up, supporters of free speech and expression must guard vigilantly against restrictions on political speech, which frequently comes under attack on campus. Just last month, FIRE had to intervene after Auburn University ordered a student to remove a Ron Paul banner from his dorm room window. The contentious 2008 election season was also rife with censorship of political speech. Policies like USC’s make it all too easy for universities to censor political speech and expression they don’t like under the guise of simply enforcing their policies. For this reason, USC’s “Advertising, Promotion, and Literature Distribution” policy is our January 2012 Speech Code of the Month.

If you believe that your college’s or university’s policy should be a Speech Code of the Month, please emailspeechcodes@thefire.orgwith 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 Campus Freedom Network, an organization of college faculty members and students dedicated to advancing individual liberties on their campuses. You also can add FIRE’s Speech Code of the Month Widget to your blog or website and help shed some much-needed sunlight on these repressive policies.

Schools:  University of Southern California