Free Speech on Campus graphic

After criticism from FIRE, USC backs off Free Speech policy change – January 2019

Los Angeles, CA

In the summer of 2018, the University of Southern California (USC) updated its policy on Free Speech, making it a requirement for students to notify university officials two weeks in advance of any planned demonstrations. In response, the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education (FIRE) downgraded USC’s Free Speech rating, leading the university to promise to revert to a prior, more flexible policy.

Key Player

FIRE is a nonpartisan nonprofit organization that monitors, evaluates, and defends students’ and faculty members’ rights on college campuses, in particular their rights to Free Speech and expression.

Ainsley Carry is the vice president for student affairs at USC; his main responsibilities are to focus on “student support and advocacy” and “promoting students involvement,” according to the USC Provost’s website.

Further Details

On Jan. 9, 2019, FIRE published a critique of USC’s Free Expression and Dissent Policy. Its main gripe was with an update the school had made in the summer of 2018 establishing a more bureaucratic process for students to complete before demonstrating on campus.

Previously, USC encouraged students to take certain actions prior to holding campus protests, such as reserving spaces and venues. But after the university amended its speech code, such suggestions became compulsory steps: “reservations and prior arrangements [with the university] are required for campus demonstration.” “Prior arrangements” include an event permit application that must be completed two weeks in advance.

The revised policy also requires, rather than encourages, representatives of sponsoring student organizations to meet with staff from the Office of Student Affairs. Discussion is to focus on security procedures and ensuring both sides understand the organizers’ rights and responsibilities.

Laura Beltz, of FIRE’s policy reform program, called the two-week requirement “an unacceptable amount of time for students to have to wait in order to express themselves on campus.”  She argued that it exceeded the reasonable “time, place and manner restrictions” on Free Speech that universities can establish under the First Amendment.

“Promising students that they’ll have the right to hold a demonstration is meaningless and misleading when students are prevented from actually reacting to current and still-unfolding events in the moment,” Beltz wrote in a piece for FIRE.

Though USC is a private university, these new regulations would undercut its promise to protect Free Speech, as enshrined in its Free Expression and Dissent policy, Beltz told the Daily Trojan, USC’s independent student newspaper.

“The University of Southern California is committed to fostering a learning environment where free inquiry and expression are encouraged and celebrated and for which all its members share responsibility,” the policy reads. “Dissent — disagreement, a difference of opinion, or thinking differently from others — is an integral aspect of expression in higher education.”

Carry told the Trojan that the policy updates were intended to avoid potential logistical conflicts, including those that often occur with venues and staffing.  He also reemphasized the university’s commitment to Free Speech.

Outcome

FIRE downgrades USC to “red light” rating

As a result of the university’s policy revision, FIRE downgraded USC’s Free Speech rating.

While the university previously had a “yellow light” rating — which describes schools with policies that “by virtue of their vague wording, could too easily be used to restrict protected expression” — FIRE has now awarded USC its lowest grade, a “red light” rating, reserved for institutions that have at least one policy that “unambiguously infringes on what is or should be protected expression.”

University to clarify Free Speech policy

In the wake of FIRE’s criticism and downgrade, USC expressed its intent to clarify its Free Speech policy, reverting the prior-arrangement requirement back to a recommendation, according to the Trojan.

The university will “clarify the wording in the upcoming 2019-20 version of the policy,” the university wrote in a statement to the Trojan. “Students will not be required to provide two-week notice of their intent to hold demonstrations,” though such advance notice is still recommended.

“USC’s Policy on Free Speech strongly states that ‘free inquiry and expression are encouraged and celebrated,’” USC continued in the Trojan statement. “We do not intend to go back on our pledge to support our students’ rights to free expression.”

External References

USC Policy on Free Speech

Speech Code of the Month: University of Southern California, FIRE Newsdesk

FIRE’s Speech Code Ratings, FIRE

University to reword free speech code for clarity, Daily Trojan

Prepared by Maya Gandhi ’20

Uploaded April 5, 2019