Do students at S.C. colleges need to have their free speech rights protected – from their own schools?
State legislators are considering a bill that would tell schools when they can and can’t limit speakers, demonstrations or the activities of campus student organizations. The idea is to protect the ability of students to express even the most controversial thoughts or opinions.
Colleges would have to promote the policy in campus materials and publicly report any legal challenges filed against them for restricting campus speech.
State Rep. Garry Smith, R-Greenville, filed the bill because he thinks colleges have become too quick to shut down speech on campus if any student is offended.
“You don’t have to be challenged or offended, you have safe spaces to go to,” Smith said at a Wednesday hearing. “In the real world, you’re going to be challenged on your thoughts and abilities.”
The bill would require schools to adopt “viewpoint-neutral” rules for using campus spaces and giving benefits to student organizations.
Travis Barham, an attorney for the conservative Alliance Defending Freedom nonprofit, criticized the practice of colleges designating “free speech zones” and restricting political speech to those areas.
Wes Hickman, spokesman for the University of South Carolina, said, “There are no ‘free speech zones’ at the University of South Carolina.
“The entire campus is open for students to speak and exchange ideas freely,” Hickman said.
USC does, however, highlight “solicitation and vendor” spaces for groups to set up tables or booths in high-trafficked areas.
“Making use of these areas also helps us to better protect the rights of those with controversial messages,” Hickman said. “These areas have been mislabeled as ‘free speech zones.’ ”
‘Deal with the social consequences’
Lawmakers also are concerned about how schools handle controversial comments by students.
State Rep. Bill Taylor, R-Aiken, mentioned the response by USC President Harris Pastides to a racially charged tweet that included the N-word.
At a rally last week, Pastides denounced the tweet and racist flyers found on campus, saying the tweet would be investigated and the student who sent it could face disciplinary action.
Barham said Pastides is free to criticize speech on campus. But, he added, “He would cross the First Amendment if action is taken to silence speech because he doesn’t like it.”
Hickman said the discussion around the bill highlights the challenges that schools face in balancing free speech rights with their obligation to provide students with a safe, welcoming environment.
“When others file complaints with the university alleging that speech creates a discriminatory and hostile environment, the university is obligated by federal law to investigate those claims,” Hickman said.
USC’s diversity office offers a bias and hate incident form to report a “noncriminal” hateful act, and staff will respond within 72 hours.
However, Shelby Emmett with the free speech unit of the American Legislative Exchange Council said university policies are training students to think schools should take punitive action against other students whose speech they don’t like.
“As a black woman, I appreciate the strong response” from Pastides, Emmett said. “But going through life, you are going to hear the N-word.”
In 2016, a libertarian student activist sued USC after he was questioned by university officials about a “free speech” display that included images of a swastika and references to racial slurs. A federal court last year dismissed that suit, saying USC didn’t censor the display or punish the student but, instead, made a “narrow” response to student complaints.
However, Emmett worries even having an administrator question student speech could have a chilling effect, even if the speaker isn’t ultimately punished.
Instead of “running to the government” to take care of hateful speech, students should be left to “deal with the social consequences” of what they say publicly, Emmett said, noting, “I know employers look at your social media.”
Second bill in two years
This is the second time in as many years the S.C. Legislature has taken up a campus speech issue.
Last year, the S.C. House passed a bill that supporters said would toughen penalties for anti-Semitic actions on college campuses. Critics said the bill could discourage criticism of Israel by students.
That bill overwhelmingly passed the House but has not been taken up in the state Senate.