The Foundation for Individual Rights in Education, a nonprofit organization that campaigns for freedom of speech at colleges, denounced USC’s most recent change to its speech code in early January.
The new regulation, which was implemented last summer, required students to register their protest or demonstration two weeks in advance. FIRE noticed the change while updating their database of free speech policies from over 450 colleges and universities for 2019.
“College should be a marketplace of ideas where students go to learn,” said Laura Beltz, a FIRE senior program officer for policy reform. “A big part of that is through expressive activities on campus -— it’s really important that students aren’t discouraged from expressing themselves.”
Since FIRE released its statement, USC has planned to clarify the wording of the policy from “required” to “recommended.”
The policy’s current wording does not differentiate between demonstrations, meaning smaller protests would also fall under the regulation.
Beltz said the policy change may have affected free speech and student expression on campus.
“[Students would] be discouraged from getting out there and conducting that expressive activity in the first place,” Beltz said.
The change in speech policy moved USC from the “yellow light rating” to the “red light rating” on the FIRE website, labeling USC with the harshest rating a university can receive for its speech regulations. Beltz said that USC’s policy change was a clear and substantial restriction of speech protected under the First Amendment.
“The University gets to do reasonable time, place and manner restrictions … the question is, is a two-week registration a reasonable time, place and manner restriction?” said Michael Overing, an Annenberg adjunct professor who specializes in censorship and First Amendment issues. “It seems like the use of two weeks [would] be used to suppress speech.”
For some students who have coordinated and participated in demonstrations and protests, the regulation feels overly restrictive.
“It stops students from having quick response times,” said Mac Whitaker, a sophomore majoring in mechanical engineering. “USC these days is full of scandal, and any time something happens, you have to register two weeks in advance — that’s gonna really kill anyone’s interest in it.”
Whitaker participated in the protest that emerged in response to conservative commentator Ben Shapiro ‘s visit to campus last October.
“[It] really makes what we’re saying worthless if we can’t respond immediately,” Whitaker said.
In response to the FIRE article, Vice President for Student Affairs Ainsley Carry said the two-week notice was intended to avoid potential conflicts from planning, such as adequate staffing, safety and booking of popular outdoor areas.
“The University of Southern California strongly supports the free speech rights of our students,” Carry wrote in his response letter to FIRE. “And this extends to campus demonstrations.”
While the current policy requires students to register protests and demonstrations two weeks in advance, USC plans to change the policy’s wording to not require students provide advance notice of their protests.
“[We are going] to clarify the wording in the upcoming 2019-20 version of the policy,” the University said in a statement to the Daily Trojan. “Students will not be required to provide two-week notice of their intent to hold demonstrations.”
However, even without the requirement, the policy strongly encourages students to register their demonstrations beforehand.
“As you know, USC’s Policy on Free Speech strongly states that ‘free inquiry and expression are encouraged and celebrated,’” the University said in a statement. “We do not intend to go back on our pledge to support our students’ rights to free expression.”