How free is free speech?
Until recently, I assumed the only real limitation on my right to speak my mind was the well-known “clear and present danger” clause of the First Amendment — and what a flexible guideline that allows. Although it is sometimes difficult to restrain myself from yelling “Fire!” on a crowded escalator at a mall on Black Friday, I would never be harassed for handing out Socialist anti-war leaflets on campus — unlike poor Charles Schenck, whose Supreme Court case in 1919 birthed this damper of a clause in the first place.
What I would be harassed for on campus, however, is protesting peacefully inside Taper Hall. Regardless of the nature of the protest, officers from the Department of Public Safety would quickly come and swoop me away, and some higher authority would probably send me a scary letter involving some use of the words “disciplinary action.” Interestingly enough, if I were to hold the same protest within a 20-foot radius of Tommy Trojan, I would be left to my own devices.
It’s understandable. USC is one of only a few major private university campuses left in the nation that still enforce a free-speech zone, which is exactly what the name implies: a certain physical perimeter in which the right to free speech can be practiced. At most schools in the United States, free speech can be exercised anywhere on campus at anytime. And why not? Isn’t that a right Americans can take for granted?
But as a private university, USC is technically not bound by the First Amendment. What we do have is a measure known as the Leonard Law, enacted by the California legislature in 1992, which gives students at private universities almost the exact same rights. The Leonard Law requires private schools in California to tolerate student speech in a manner almost identical to that of the First Amendment. Essentially, it states that any form of free speech that would be protected off campus by the First Amendment must be protected on campus by the Leonard Law.
According to SCampus, the official student handbook, USC has the right to dictate “reasonable time, place and manner” for the expression of free speech. Any protests or disruptions that do not fit the senior administration’s rather ambiguous definition of “reasonable time, place and manner” can be “met by the action of the university that is necessary to restore the order.”
Such a restriction might not be widely noticed or even applicable to most students. But incidents in the past have caused USC to overstep arguable boundaries to maintain its strict policies.
In March 2007, the USC Free Culture club was fined for posting fliers within the free-speech zone; the university claimed the club had not had the fliers approved first. So nonsensical was this action on the part of USC that the story was picked up by local news blog LAist, which called the incident a “display of supreme irony.”
Similarly, in February 2006, artist George Weiss Vando was performing near Tommy Trojan for Gender and Sexuality Week when complaints from DPS and staff about his repeated swearing shut down the show.
It’s somewhat Orwellian, but true: USC students are being given a modified version of their actual constitutional rights. Students who wish to protest or dissent are allotted their time slots, given that they submit a permit two weeks in advance. Political groups may wave their signs and hold their vigils, so long as they are outside the building doors.
And for those who consider the free speech zone just another annoying policy on par with the bike ban, keep exercising your freedom to meet with your friends under the statue of Tommy Trojan. Just make sure you’re loud enough to be heard from more than 20 feet away.
Xueyou Wang is a freshman majoring in creative writing.