Columbia, S.C. — Can the University of South Carolina’s equal opportunity office investigate students for a university-approved free speech event because other students claim they find the event “offensive” and “triggering?” The answer, which should alarm any American who cares about free speech on campus, seems to be “yes” — at least for now.
On Tuesday, July 11, 2017, a federal district court dismissed a First Amendment lawsuit filed against USC by student Ross Abbott and the campus chapters of Young Americans for Liberty and College Libertarians, who found themselves the target of an investigation by university administrators for hosting a pre-approved free speech event on campus that a few students complained was “triggering.”
The plaintiffs now plan to appeal the decision to the United States Court of Appeals for the Fourth Circuit. The lawsuit was filed in February 2016 as part of the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education’s Stand Up For Speech Litigation Project.
In her opinion, Senior United States District Judge Margaret B. Seymour concluded that USC’s chilling overreaction to pre-approved speech represented “a narrow approach to addressing the rights of all students on campus: those who participated in the event and those who felt discriminated by it.”
“The district court’s opinion kneecaps free speech by giving campus bureaucrats extraordinary latitude to browbeat dissenters into keeping their mouths shut,” said FIRE Executive Director Robert Shibley. “Once it’s clear that expression is protected by the First Amendment, no further investigation or interrogation is warranted or permissible. If this decision stands, students of all political stripes can look forward to being summoned for mandatory ‘discussions’ with administrators about any expression their college might find inconvenient.”
The students’ November 2015 free speech event featured posters depicting examples of censorship on other campuses, many of which were taken from FIRE’s website. Knowing that the examples might prove controversial, Abbott had them pre-approved by USC’s director of campus life.
However, after three students complained about the posters following the event, Abbott received a letter promising a “Notice of Charge” and including “official Complaint[s] of Discrimination.” It also placed a gag order on Abbott, preventing him from talking to anyone about the charge. Ultimately, Abbott and another student were questioned for 45 minutes by administrators from the Office of Equal Opportunity Programs, during which time they were made to justify their use of every poster.
“The university’s approach placed its thumb firmly on the side of the scale of those who want to silence speech and showed little regard for what the court even agreed was a chilling effect on free expression,” said Robert Corn-Revere of Davis Wright Tremaine, counsel for the students. “We believe the decision is plainly contrary to well-established First Amendment principles and will be overturned on appeal.”