The Foundation for Individual Rights in Education, an advocacy group dedicated to promoting First Amendment rights at institutions of higher learning, recently rated USC as a “red light university.” In order to be rated as a red light university, a school must have “at least one policy that both clearly and substantially restricts freedom of speech.”
For a university so dedicated to intellectual inquiry and discovery, USC is apparently not too free-speech friendly.
FIRE’s annual report, released this month, listed the top colleges and universities for free speech. They compiled this list after looking at whether or not an institution’s policies restrict free speech and whether the school had recently censored student speech. The top seven schools chosen received a “green light” rating (meaning no university policies seriously impede free speech).
Not one school in California made the top seven cut. In fact, USC is rated as one of the most restrictive universities in an already restrictive state.
If USC is to be an institution that is truly dedicated to intellectual exploration and the betterment of society, the administration must revise its speech-related policies to allow for true on-campus freedom of speech.
Though many of USC’s policies received less than favorable ratings from FIRE, one clause from this year’s SCampus, the university’s student guidebook that provides information on everything from campus safety to plagiarism, is particularly disconcerting. A section called “University Policy on Free Expression and Dissent” offers a definition for “fighting words,” or speech that is “abusive and insulting rather than a communication of ideas” that is used in an abusive manner. USC prohibits “fighting words” in all on-campus activity. According to another SCampus policy, no literature posted or distributed on campus may contain “fighting words.”
These policies broad implications for free speech on campus and have the capacity to effectively stifle any expression that may be considered offensive or not politically correct.
It is nearly impossible to exercise free speech without offending people. The reason why the Founding Fathers thought it so important to protect individuals’ rights to free expression was because they knew that there would always be people who try to restrict speech that they disagree with. As a democracy committed to individual liberties, the Founding Fathers knew that all citizens must be protected from censorship and be allowed to speak their minds.
The case should not be any different at USC nor any other college campus. As academic microcosms representing the best and brightest of America, universities must adhere to the constitutional right to unfettered free speech as fervently as — if not more than — the country as a whole.
This is especially true now.
With the presidential election coming in November, the unrest in the Middle East and the many other controversial issues currently at play in the United States, there will be no shortage of issues for students to get fired up about. The obscurity of the “fighting words” clause could make it against university policy for a Republican to criticize President Barack Obama or a Democrat to vilify Republican presidential nominee Mitt Romney if someone were to deem the criticism offensive. Since much of politics can quickly become offensive, or at least controversial, the university’s definition of fighting words does not leave too much room for free expression and debate over the hot-button issues.
Of course, USC doesn’t need to be like Berkeley during the Free Speech Movement era in order to exemplify free speech on college campuses. (Today, FIRE deems Berkeley a “yellow light” institution, meaning it has at least one ambiguous policy that can encourage “administrative abuse and arbitrary application.”) And it is not to say FIRE’s rating indicates administrative intolerance of controversial beliefs or speech at USC. But it would be a major step forward for liberty on campus if the administration were to change such potentially stifling provisions as the “fighting words” clause.
Until then, though, let’s just hope that the administration won’t get in the way of student debate and discussion. College is the time for young people to speak their minds, and we shouldn’t have to worry that expressing our beliefs might break with university policy. Policy should uphold the message that USC itself sends to its students — to be outspoken, ambitious, respectful individuals.
Sarah Cueva is a junior majoring in political science and Middle East studies.