OPINION: USC is unresponsive to shifting views on speech

College students are calling for reprioritization of First Amendment rights, and the University is failing to keep up.

According to a recent report by Inside Higher Ed, absolute free speech is no longer as important to college students as it was in previous generations, and it seems USC is unaware and unprepared to address this shift. More than 50 years after the Vietnam War-era campus Free Speech Movement, college students now prioritize diversity over free speech, even if this means abridging their own freedom of speech. In a Gallup survey released by the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation, a slight majority — 53 percent — of students responded that a diverse and inclusive society is ultimately more important than all free speech rights, and holding people accountable for hate speech is viewed as more important too.

USC does a poor job of informing students of their free speech rights. While most people are aware that their speech is limited because they are enrolled at a private institution, many don’t know the extent of these limitations. Students can all access SCampus and read the University codes on their own time, but in the midst of heated discussions, general ignorance sometimes takes precedence; it is safe to say that the average student does not know whether hate speech is allowed on campus or not. USC’s speech code does not explicitly bar hate speech unless it implies or causes violence. But Gallup surveys report that the majority of students want to ban hate speech entirely. Students at USC need an accessible mode of discussion to offer feedback to the University, and express what changes they want to see in University conduct code.

An open forum to discuss USC’s speech policies — or any other policies — is difficult to find. USC’s events page has a category to easily find events that have “free food,” but it does not offer the same for events related to USC’s student policies, and how students could offer feedback regarding their needs and ideas. Town hall meetings and student government meetings aren’t as openly advertised as they could be, and there are not many physical public discussion spaces for University policy-related topics.

USC’s various events around political and societal discussion are advertised on the University website’s events page and on other respective platforms, but USC fails to create a method for students to send feedback about their experiences or suggestions for future talks. While there are social media sites USC runs to facilitate discussion, some are not accessible, difficult to moderate or stray from the topic at hand. Many events that offer a space for discussion tend to be specific to a school or field of study. Though they are open to the public, most people who are not affiliated with a particular school or organization do not know about these events.

A majority of students across the country who participated in the aforementioned Gallup poll believe that many discussions about political and social issues are happening online and that these discussions are more susceptible to restrictions on free speech. An unpopular opinion is easily blocked and an uncalled for comment is easily deleted. As a nonpartisan institution, USC has a duty to represent different sides of the conversation and ensure that these arguments are productive and do not devolve into chaos. But it can be more difficult to moderate online discussion, especially if the platform is not designed to prioritize moderation. Anonymity and evasiveness only contribute to the difficulty of having online discussions.

USC is arguably a less politically polarized environment than campuses like UC Berkeley or other liberal arts colleges. It is not notorious for protests and riots opposing alt-right speakers. But that does not mean we don’t need productive, moderated spaces for discussion, including spaces for discussion regarding the limits to our own free speech.