The Corner


A University’s Anti-Free Speech Rules Upheld — For Now

The old saying, “You can’t win ‘em all” applies to the case Abbott v. Pastides.

It is a rather typical case involving a school’s policies that restrain students in the exercise of free speech. The school in this instance is the University of South Carolina. For years, the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education (FIRE) has been litigating with remarkable success against such policies, but in this case the first round went to the speech controllers, as I explain in today’s Martin Center article.

The case is funny in that the complaints about “discrimination” grew out of an event that was specifically about the problem of campus free speech, with posters that covered past cases where free speech had been at issue. The students behind the event (Young Americans for Freedom and College Libertarians) even got express permission from a university official for the posters they’d display.

Naturally, a few USC students griped about the event, claiming that they were upset at, e.g., seeing a swastika and reading the word “wetback” (which figured in one of the cases). Then the campus Office of Educational Equality got involved. It informed student Ross Abbott that he needed to make an appointment to see the director within ten days to answer the charges. He was also informed that failure to do so could lead to severe sanctions, such as mandatory “training” or even expulsion.

Abbott did as ordered, but stood his ground at the meeting, refusing to admit he had done anything wrong and defending each of the posters. Several weeks later, the university informed him that it would take no further action in the matter.

Still, the university’s policies are inconsistent with the free speech guaranteed by the First Amendment, so Abbott sued (with the able assistance of FIRE). Unfortunately, the case was assigned to a federal district judge (a Clinton appointee) who decided that USC’s speech policies were reasonable. FIRE’s executive director, the attorney who handled the case and I disagree. The case will be appealed to the Fourth Circuit.

George Leef is the the director of editorial content at the James G. Martin Center for Academic Renewal.