A University of South Carolina student has filed a federal lawsuit against the university over its speech code and “free speech zone” policies, after school officials questioned him and threatened to expel him for posters he displayed on campus. Ross Abbott, 21, a senior business student, filed the suit in federal court this week over the incident that happened in November.
He, the College Libertarians at the University of South Carolina, and the Young Americans for Liberty at the University of South Carolina, set up a display as part of a “Free Speech Event” in front of the Russell House student center to call attention to free speech infringements on other college campuses. They obtained prior permission from the university for their display, which included expressions that had been censored in the past, like a swastika, a poster with the racial slur “wetback,” and anti-Israeli sentiment.
The lawsuit says that they were trying to explain to other students the context for those free speech disputes, but several students made formal complaints to the university because they were offended.
The suit says the university issued a “notice of charge” letter to Abbott, but ultimately did not punish him. But the lawsuit says the school hasn’t changed or clarified its policies.
The suit says Abbott and the groups displayed the swastika to call attention to a George Washington University case in which a student was suspended, evicted from his dorm, and referred to law enforcement for investigation of a “hate crime” for displaying on a dorm bulletin board a small, bronze Indian swastika he got and learned about on a spring break trip to India.
The “wetback” poster was to call attention to Brandeis University’s ruling that a professor engaged in racial harassment when he used the term “wetback” to explain its origins and criticize its use.
First Amendment attorney Jay Bender says the University of South Carolina’s threat to punish the student is unconstitutional. “The First Amendment exists to protect speech that people in the government don’t like. And this seems to me to be a classic case of where the government doesn’t like the speech and is trying to intimidate or burden the speaker,” he says.
“Those students who were offended had two options, I think. One is counter-speech, which is always preferred, or they could leave. But just because you’re offended by speech doesn’t mean the government should come in and restrict that speech.”
One of the complaints by students said the swastika “violently triggered” a Jewish friend who now feels unsafe on campus. Another criticized the display of “offensive symbols and racial slurs” and stated that the student groups should lose access to University funding for future events, while another demanded that the University declare the display a hate crime and require an apology.
USC’s spokesman did not respond to a request for comment.