Students Interrogated for Organizing Free Speech Event File First Amendment Lawsuit Against University of South Carolina
COLUMBIA, S.C., February 23, 2016—The University of South Carolina’s (USC’s) marketing materials claim “No Limits” on the student experience—except, it seems, when it comes to constitutional rights. That’s why today, student Ross Abbott and the campus chapters of Young Americans for Liberty (YAL) and College Libertarians filed a First Amendment lawsuit against USC with the help of the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education (FIRE).
Last fall, the student groups held an outdoor event displaying posters with examples of expression that had been censored on campuses across the country. Three other students filed formal complaints, claiming that some of the posters were “offensive” and “triggering.” In response, USC served Abbott with a “Notice of Charge” letter and launched an investigation for “discrimination,” threatening him with punishment up to and including expulsion for his protected speech.
Abbott and the campus chapters of YAL and the College Libertarians are now suing USC for violating their free speech rights. FIRE is sponsoring the lawsuit, the twelfth in FIRE’s undefeated national Stand Up For Speech Litigation Project.
“The University of South Carolina is so intolerant of free speech that students can’t even talk about free speech,” said Catherine Sevcenko, FIRE’s director of litigation. “Ironically, the university’s current marketing campaign features the slogan ‘No Limits.’ But as Ross and his fellow students learned, that does not extend to their free speech rights.”
The free speech event, held in a USC “free speech zone” on November 23, 2015, featured information about 11 instances of campus censorship, most of which required FIRE’s intervention. These examples included Modesto Junior College in California preventing a student from handing out copies of the U.S. Constitution; Chicago State University censoring a faculty blog; and George Washington University suspending a Jewish student for placing a souvenir Hindu swastika, obtained on a trip to India, on his residence hall’s bulletin board.
Thinking the event might prove controversial, Abbott showed the posters to the director of campus life beforehand, who approved them and acknowledged the importance of raising awareness about censorship. That did not stop USC from serving Abbott the day after the event with a Notice of Charge letter demanding that he meet with an administrator from the Office of Equal Opportunity Programs to respond to the complaints.
On December 8, 2015, Abbott and YAL President Michael Kriete met with Assistant Director of the Office of Equal Opportunity Programs Carl Wells, a defendant in the lawsuit, for 45 minutes. Wells required Abbott to answer for each poster by explaining the situation it described and justifying the message that he and the others were trying to send. In response, Abbott gave Wells a letter asking that his disciplinary record be expunged, that the university clarify that controversial speech that is protected by the First Amendment will not be penalized under USC policies, and that USC adopt the Chicago Principles, a reaffirmation of the importance of free speech and academic freedom on campus.
Two weeks later, Wells notified Abbott by email that the matter was being dropped. He made no mention of Abbott’s three requests—inaction that prompted today’s lawsuit, as Abbott and the student groups do not want to see other students punished for protected speech in the future.
“Even if University of South Carolina students play by the unconstitutional rules and seek permission to exercise their rights, they still risk punishment,” said Sevcenko. “No one should have to explain their speech to a government bureaucrat under threat of punishment, especially on a college campus, but that is exactly what USC made Ross do.”
The lawsuit challenges a number of USC’s policies, including its free speech zone policy, which restricts student speech to a few areas of campus and requires that students register in advance before they can exercise their First Amendment rights. The lawsuit also challenges USC’s Student Non-Discrimination and Non-Harassment Policy, a vague and overbroad restriction that prohibits “unwelcome” speech and “suggestive or insulting gestures or sounds.”
“I held an educational event for students to learn about their free speech rights. Apparently it was my school’s administrators that needed the lesson,” said Abbott. “Now, with FIRE’s help, we’re going to give it to them.”
FIRE has retained preeminent First Amendment attorney Robert Corn-Revere of the law firm Davis Wright Tremaine and his colleagues Ronald London and Lisa Zycherman to represent the students in this Stand Up For Speech lawsuit.
FIRE is a nonpartisan, nonprofit educational foundation that unites civil rights and civil liberties leaders, scholars, journalists, and public intellectuals from across the political and ideological spectrum on behalf of individual rights, freedom of expression, academic freedom, due process, and freedom of conscience at our nation’s colleges and universities. FIRE’s efforts to preserve liberty on campuses across America can be viewed at thefire.org.
Katie Barrows, Communications Coordinator, FIRE: 215-717-3473; firstname.lastname@example.org