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USC sued by student over speech code

Ross Abbott, right, and Michael Kriete are University of South Carolina students who had to explain their decision to show posters that questioned freedom of speech limits at public universities. Abbott on Tuesday sued USC even though it did not follow through with threatened disciplinary action after some students complained about the posters.
Ross Abbott, right, and Michael Kriete are University of South Carolina students who had to explain their decision to show posters that questioned freedom of speech limits at public universities. Abbott on Tuesday sued USC even though it did not follow through with threatened disciplinary action after some students complained about the posters. PROVIDED PHOTOGRAPH

A University of South Carolina student who is an activist Libertarian sued the college Tuesday on freedom of speech grounds because it threatened to discipline him for posters used last fall during a free speech event.

Ross Abbott, 21, a USC senior studying business management, filed the federal suit because a university official told Abbott he faced discipline, up to expulsion, over complaints from three students about posters that campus Libertarian organizations displayed at a Nov. 23 “free speech zone” event intended to showcase First Amendment freedoms, according to Catherine Sevcenko, director of litigation for Foundation for Individual Rights in Education.

The posters included images of a swastika displayed at another campus and one that alluded to a suspension last year of a USC student over a photo showing a racial slur written in a campus study room. Shortly after the female student’s suspension, FIRE wrote to USC president Harris Pastides and asserted the suspension was improper and that what she wrote is protected speech.

Efforts Tuesday to get USC’s response to the suit were unsuccessful. Spokesman Wes Hickman said the university had not been served with the suit, though it is available on the S.C. federal court website. The suit names Pastides and three other USC officials.

FIRE is a Philadelphia-based advocacy group that focuses on students’ constitutional rights. It helped bring the action on behalf of Abbott and campus organizations Young Americans for Liberty and College Libertarians. FIRE is involved in 12 other “Stand Up For Speech” suits across the country as part of FIRE’s opposition to speech codes at public universities. The group’s intent is to “reset the incentives that currently push colleges towards censoring student and faculty speech,” according to its website.

Abbott, a Virginia Beach, Va., native, said in an interview that he filed the suit to support students’ rights to freedom of expression. Citing Vietnam war protestors, Abbott said universities have histories of trying to muzzle student speech. The case alludes to campus political correctness but raises larger First Amendment issues, Abbott said.

USC did not follow through on disciplining Abbott and fellow student Michael Kriete, president of Young Americans for Liberty, the second student organization involved in the poster dispute. But the university also did not change its policy, Sevcenko said.

But the fact that Abbott and Kriete were called before Carl Wells, director of USC’s Office of Equal Opportunity Programs, and made to defend their posters and their free speech rights for 45 minutes is the basis of the suit, she said. Wells is a named defendant.

“He is aggrieved because he was under the threat of expulsion and was forced by a government official to justify his speech,” Sevcenko said of Abbott. “He had to convince the government that what he said was OK.”

Sevcenko said the questioning of the students was akin to a voter being asked by a government official to explain who they voted for and why.

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