A federal judge has dismissed a former University of South Carolina student’s free-speech lawsuit against university president Harris Pastides and three other administrators.
The suit was filed in February 2016 by Ross Abbott, a libertarian activist who then was a USC senior. Abbott alleged USC officials had infringed on his First Amendment rights by asking him to explain his decision to show posters that questioned freedom-of-speech limits at public universities.
The posters included the words “wet back,” images of a swastika displayed at another campus, and a reference to the 2015 suspension of a USC student over a photo showing a racial slur written in a campus study room.
The posters were part a Nov. 23, 2015, on-campus “free speech event” held by Abbott and two campus libertarian organizations.
The day after the event, Carl Wells, assistant director of USC’s Office of Equal Opportunity Programs, sent Abbott a letter telling him that three students had filed formal discrimination complaints.
The letter gave Abbott, a Virginia native who now is at Emory University’s law school, five days to respond and directed him not to discuss the issue on campus or contact the students who had complained.
One student complained Abbott and the campus organizations had “engaged rudely with USC students, saying sexist and racist statements” during the event. Another complained a friend who saw the swastika display was “violently triggered by seeing the symbol, and now feels unsafe on campus.”
Two weeks later, Abbott and another student, Michael Kriete of Young Americans for Liberty, met with Wells for 45 minutes to explain the purpose of the event and defend the posters.
Wells confirmed the meeting was intended to obtain more information about the event, according to a court ruling filed this week.
On Dec. 23, 2015, Wells sent a letter to Abbott telling him that USC would “not move any further in regard to this matter. The Office of Equal Opportunity Programs has found no cause for investigating this matter.”
In the lawsuit, Abbott and the libertarian organizations argued Wells’ initial letter was effectively a gag order.
This week, however, U.S. District Judge Margaret Seymour ruled that USC never attempted to silence Abbott’s speech, punish him for it or “prevent students from engaging in similar speech in the future.”
Instead, she wrote, USC “chose a narrow approach to addressing the rights of all students on campus: those who participated in the event and those who felt discriminated by it.”
Abbott, USC’s College Libertarians and the Young Americans for Liberty plan to appeal the ruling, according to the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education – a Philadelphia-based advocacy group that focuses on students’ constitutional rights.
Abbott referred questions to FIRE.
“The District Court’s opinion kneecaps free speech by giving campus bureaucrats extraordinary latitude to browbeat dissenters into keeping their mouths shut,” foundation executive director Robert Shibley said in a statement.
USC did not respond Thursday to a request to comment.