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USC forces students to get permission for free speech two weeks ahead of time

The University of Southern California can’t please anyone these days.

Beyond its drug and sexual harassment faculty scandals that are well-known nationally, the private university has been rebuked by multiple appeals courts for unfair sexual-misconduct proceedings against students.

Now it’s facing scrutiny for revoking students’ free-speech rights in a heretofore unnoticed policy change over the summer.

The Foundation for Individual Rights in Education singled out USC for its “speech code of the month” this week and announced it was dropping the private university’s speech-code rating.

The “Free Expression and Dissent” policy previously “encouraged” students to follow its “guidelines” on reserving venues for planned demonstrations and applying for permits two weeks ahead of time.

The July 9 policy revision continues to refer to “guidelines” but now mandates “reservations and prior arrangements” and completing a questionnaire and permit application “at least two weeks prior to the demonstration.”

USC is violating its own contractual promises to students, which state that USC celebrates free expression and that students “have the right to hold a demonstration,” according to FIRE:

Under First Amendment standards, universities may put in place reasonable “time, place, and manner restrictions” on where and when demonstrations can take place on campus in order to limit disruptions to regular college activities and functions. However, forcing students to apply for a permit two weeks in advance in order to conduct all sorts of demonstrations — whether involving a group of three people or one of three hundred — is nowhere near reasonable.

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. USC must revise this policy so that students are not discouraged from protesting altogether by a burdensome permit application process, and so that students can instead conduct spontaneous expressive activities on campus.

As a result, FIRE has lowered USC’s speech-code rating from “yellow light” – for policies that are ambiguous or encourage administrative abuse – to “red light,” because the July 9 revision “clearly and substantially” restricts freedom of speech.

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IMAGE: Bashigo/Shutterstock

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About the Author
Associate Editor
Greg spent several years as a technology policy reporter and editor for Warren Communications News in Washington, D.C., and guest host on C-SPAN’s “The Communicators.” He co-founded the alternative newspaper PUNCH and served as a reporter, editor and columnist for The Falcon at Seattle Pacific University.

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