Education

Court rules on free speech case where USC student groups showed a swastika

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. Courtesy of Foundation for Individual Rights in Education

A federal appeals court ruled in favor of the University of South Carolina in a lawsuit where student groups accused the university of violating their right to free speech.

The case stems from a November 2015 “Free Speech Event” hosted by College Libertarians and Young Americans For Liberty. The event, approved by the university and held in front of Russell House, featured imagery — such as a swastika and a sign with the word “wetback” — that had prompted free-speech concerns at other campuses, according to the court’s opinion and previous media reports.

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After the event, three USC students filed formal complaints against the organizations involved in the event and event sponsor Ross Abbott, who was then a USC senior.

The complaints included the following, according to a 2017 article by Avery Wilks:

“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.”’

After those complaints were filed, university administrators required Abbott to attend a meeting where the university asked the groups to justify the use of symbols, such as the swastika, that prompted student complaints, according to the court documents and previous media reports. The university did not investigate the claims and took no action against the student groups, but Abbott and the student organizations argued the meeting itself, which lasted about 45 minutes, was enough to “chill” free speech.

The three-judge appeals court disagreed, siding with a federal district court judge who dismissed the suit in 2017.

“The University neither prevented the plaintiffs from holding their Free Speech Event nor sanctioned them after the fact,” Circuit Judge Pamela Harris wrote in the unanimous court opinion. “(USC’s) prompt and minimally intrusive resolution of subsequent student complaints does not rise to the level of a First Amendment violation.”

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