Yesterday, the University of Southern California (USC) held a “listening session” with members of the committee formed to consider candidates to replace the university’s former president, who resigned under a cloud of scandals. The university has repeatedly emphasized its commitment to a transparent process.
In glaring contradiction of that commitment, however, the university first sought to bar student journalists from attending the “public forum,” then instructed the journalists that they were prohibited from recording the event or even taking notes. This has raised well-warranted objections from student journalists at USC.
The university issued a statement ratifying and defending that decision, arguing that it was necessary to assure students that journalists would not be recording or reporting on the session:
.@USC also issued a separate statement, stating that it believes speakers will feel more comfortable sharing their opinions without worry that their comments will be recorded or reported on. pic.twitter.com/nV7cATjF29
— Daily Trojan (@dailytrojan) September 13, 2018
Although USC is a private institution and not required by the First Amendment to extend freedom of expression rights to its students, the university has laudable promises of freedom of expression — including a policy that prohibits the administration from exercising “control of campus facilities … as a device of censorship.”
Even accepting for the sake of argument that there’s a compelling interest in subordinating student journalists’ expressive rights to student privacy, USC has a number of other ways to facilitate private student communication with its presidential search committee. It is already providing, for example, an anonymous form and an email address, and students can speak at the “listening sessions” without providing their names.
In a process already criticized for its lack of student membership, the “listening sessions” may be the only substantial opportunity for student journalists to observe and report on the process to select the university’s new president. As many institutions shy away from transparency in their presidential search processes, USC’s conduct here is a worrying departure from its public-facing commitments.
Today, FIRE sent a letter to USC defending student journalists’ rights to observe, record, and report on events open to the student body, and calling on the university to rescind its prohibition before the next “listening session” occurs on Monday.
[Update (September 17, 2018): USC apologized today to the Daily Trojan and Annenberg Media, issuing a statement by Board of Trustees Chairman Rick Caruso, who said that “student media reporters were mistakenly told by a University Communications staff person that they were not permitted to report from inside the session.”]