The Supreme Court earlier this month upheld the rights of bigots to protest in front of U.S. soldiers’ funerals.
At first glance, this sounds like in reality an absolutely horrible decision, but it merely reinforces the vital American principle of free speech.
It also reminds us that if we want to uphold the positive aspects of the First Amendment, we cannot stifle the negative.
An appellate court had ruled in favor of the father of a fallen Marine who sued Kansas pastor Fred Phelps of Westboro Baptist Church for leading a protest that “intentionally inflicted emotional distress” at his son’s funeral, but the Supreme Court ruled overwhelmingly in favor of Phelps in an 8-to-1 decision.
With this ruling, deluded parishioners of the church can continue to hold up signs reading “thank God for dead soldiers” and “God hates fags” near military funerals.
In other words, they can spew hateful rhetoric against a grieving nation and abuse their First Amendment rights by pushing disgusting messages onto society.
Rulings like this, however, are nothing new. A case in the ‘70s ended in victory for neo-Nazis who used their First Amendment rights to march through the streets of Chicago.
If we want to protect our right to speak for positive change we cannot stifle the misguided voices of those who use their constitutional right for negative change.
Silencing political hate groups and their divisively un-American rhetoric would be un-American in and of itself.
With this in mind, USC’s Policy on Free Expression and Dissent contains certain provisions that are disconcerting.
Because USC is a private, not public, institution, it is not necessarily required to adhere to the same First Amendment policy as is promoted by the Supreme Court.
USC’s policy holds that free speech in the form of “coercive disruption” is not acceptable.
This includes that no student may use, according to the SCampus, “fighting words” with which “(i) the speech, considered objectively, is abusive and insulting rather than a communication of ideas and (ii) it is actually used in an abusive manner in a situation that presents an actual danger.”
Regardless of how controversial or “abusive and insulting” these words might be, taking away our right to use them is a serious restriction of the First Amendment, even if USC is a private institution.
People who invoke their right to free speech are passionate about their cause, whether it be positive or negative, and as such some of their rhetoric might not be pleasant for everyone to hear and listen to.
We are students at an increasingly prestigious university with a mission that includes free inquiry and an exploration of ideas.
Thus, we cannot continue to be subject to restrictive university policies that take away the passion and complete freedom of expression that should come on a campus that promotes such a mission.
When this passion and freedom of expression does not violate the stipulation of “reasonable time, place, and manner,” which ensures that nobody is in danger and that normal everyday proceedings are not disrupted by demonstrations, all ideas should be allowed.
Of course, as people who are tolerant of other beliefs and seek to make a positive impact on the world, we should continue to make a point of exercising our First Amendment rights in ways that spark thoughtful, peaceful discussion without resorting to the bigotry and inflammatory tactics employed by groups such as Westboro Baptist Church.
Still, the Supreme Court’s consistent protection of tactics like these emphasizes the need to allow them in order to keep our own right to peaceful protest and a respectful public expression of opinion.
Although USC is a private institution, it is a place that reflects the very best of America and the world.
We should tolerate messages that we do not necessarily agree with or support. Though these messages might disgust us and be inflammatory, we are still obligated to allow them because of the First Amendment.
The point here is to push the envelope of ideas and allow free expression of what we can be exposed to as much as possible and form our own opinions.
Continuing to allow anything less would be a disservice to our great school and its intellectually curious students, an idea of which Snyder v. Phelps reminds us.
Sarah Cueva is a freshman majoring in political science.