College campuses in South Carolina are ripe for a free-speech lawsuit, a new study claims.
The University of South Carolina, Clemson University, Coastal Carolina University, College of Charleston and Furman University all had at least one free speech policy that received a “red light” rating, according to a newly released study by the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education (FIRE).
“Red light” ratings are the worst free-speech rating a school can receive, and many red light-worthy policies run afoul the constitution, said study author and Pennsylvania-based free speech attorney Laura Beltz.
Meanwhile, colleges and universities nationwide have been backing off their most restrictive free speech policies. In 2009, 74 percent of colleges received a “red light” rating, according to a previous FIRE report. This year, 29 percent of schools were given a “red light” rating, the study shows.
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“We’re seeing the most clearly unconstitutional policies ending on college campuses,” Beltz said. “In South Carolina, we’re not seeing those improvements at all.”
FIRE conducted the study by examining each of the free-speech policies of 362 four-year public schools and 104 private schools throughout the country, according to the report’s methodology page.
The study results look merely at the colleges’ rules themselves, not how they are enforced, Beltz said. For example, USC received a “red light” for the way its “Carolinian Creed” is written, using phrases such as “I will demonstrate concern for others, their feelings, and their need for conditions which support their work and development,” according to the creed and the study.
The Carolinian Creed essentially is a statement of moral values that USC students commit to uphold.
“The way it’s written, it does sound compulsory,” Beltz said.
USC disputed that.
“Regarding the Carolina Creed, ours is a campus where free expression of various points of view is encouraged and nurtured,” USC spokesman Jeff Stensland said in a statement. “The Creed is an aspirational statement that reminds students of the importance of civil discourse that encourages mutual respect and eschews bigotry. It’s puzzling that FIRE would find promotion of those values incompatible with the First Amendment.”
Furman University and the College of Charleston also received red lights because of the ways their student conduct codes were written, according to the report.
USC, Clemson, Coastal Carolina, College of Charleston and Furman all received red lights because their anti-harassment, anti-discrimination or sexual misconduct policies are overly broad, the report said.
For example, Clemson’s anti-harassment and nondiscrimination policy says, “Sexual harassment is unwelcome conduct of a sexual nature. It includes unwelcome sexual advances, requests for sexual favors, and other verbal, nonverbal, or physical conduct of a sexual nature including sexual violence.”
FIRE rated that policy as “red” because it “both clearly and substantially restricts freedom of speech,” the foundation said on its website.
Colleges and universities argue their policies are consistent with the law. While Beltz said USC’s sexual harassment policy doesn’t meet standards set forth by the Supreme Court, Stensland said USC’s sexual harassment policies are “consistent with federal guidance.”
Clemson took a similar stance, saying its policies are in line with the law and are designed to protect students and faculty.
“Clemson University strives to be a place where a full range of views are encouraged, expressed and debated, and as a public institution, is subject to the provisions of the First Amendment to the U.S. Constitution,” spokesman Joe Galbraith said in a statement. “At the same time, the university has the responsibility to ensure that its community members are not subject to unlawful acts of harassment and discrimination.”
University policies that might contradict the Supreme Court’s interpretation of the First Amendment stay on the books because the policies are rarely challenged, Beltz said.
But students do care about free speech. A nonscientific poll conducted by The State shows free speech is among the most important issues to USC students.
And students sometimes do challenge university free speech policies.
In August, two College of Charleston students sued the school for not recognizing a nonpartisan group of students as an official group, saying there were already other nonpartisan, political student groups on campus, according to the civil complaint and previous reporting by The State. That case is ongoing.
And in 2015, two USC students sued the university for alleged violations of free speech after a campus group portrayed a swastika during a free speech event and was required to justify their behavior in a 45-minute meeting with university administrators. A federal appeals judge found USC requiring the students to attend the meeting did not violate the students’ free speech rights, The State previously reported.