There was an embarassing incident last Thursday when an administration employee instructed Dept. of Public Safety officers to throw three doctorate students out of an event celebrating the groundbreaking of Wallis Annenberg Hall on suspicion of being protestors.
The three second-year Ph.D. communication students — Alex Leavitt, Emma Bloomfield and Marcus Shepard — were falsely identified by an employee of the administration as being members of the Student Coalition Against Labor Exploitation, which for three semesters has been protesting the use of sweatshop labor to make USC apparel.
Aside from the public relations faux pas, however, the incident further illuminates a serious problem with the administration’s recent stance on free speech at USC, particularly where SCALE is concerned.
The standing legal interpretation of the U.S. Constitution is that it only restricts the power and actions of the government. Therefore, private institutions such as USC are not compelled constitutionally to uphold an individual’s First Amendment rights.
The state constitution of California, however, includes an affirmative right to free speech, one on which private institutions cannot infringe. USC is also subject to its own regulations governing the free speech of its students. The SCampus and Student Code of Conduct, for example, repeatedly state that USC supports free speech, provided it does not incite illicit activity, interfere with the day-to-day operations of the university or constitute hate speech.
The university administration, therefore, had little basis for denying these students admission to an event — one they were, in fact, specifically invited to — for fear they might choose to express their opinions while in attendance. Leavitt, while acknowledging that everyone makes mistakes, expressed his distaste with the policy he was falsely accused of violating.
“That our exclusion originated in an insinuation that particular students do not have the freedom or privilege to speak out on and about our campus … is outright disappointing,” Leavitt said.
Recently, USC has tightened up security at student events in response to escalation of SCALE’s activism, which has intensified since a September factory fire in Pakistan that killed 289 garment workers and represented one of the biggest industrial disasters in history.
According to Women’s Wear Daily, a factory monitoring agency certified the facility for fire safety in an audit less than a year before the tragedy occurred. This same monitor, UL Responsible Sourcing, is listed in USC’s License Social Responsibility Compliance Manual as one of the university’s approved third-party auditing firms for factories in which university-licensed products are manufactured.
When labor rights become a matter of life or death, it would seem prudent for the university’s administration to engage with students on this important local, national and global issue. It seems, however, that the university has ignored these students for so long that it is unable to correctly identify them.
Members of SCALE are exercising their First Amendment rights, which the university claims to wholeheartedly support, as well as their civic duty to speak out when an American institution is not respecting human dignity, health and, in the case of the factory fire, life.
But instead of recognizing them for the responsible community members they are, the administration has labeled this group a scourge on the campus, to the point that merely looking like members was enough to get Leavitt, Bloomfield and Shepard ejected from an event.
The university should encourage open dialogue between the administration and students who want to see their school enact positive change.
If USC were to embrace rather than suppress the message its students are trying to send, it could steer clear of restricting free speech on campus and provide the university with future opportunities to take a stand on important community and global issues.
Francesca Bessey is a sophomore majoring in narrative studies and international relations. Her column “Open Campus” runs Wednesdays.