Last summer, the University quietly amended its speech code to make it easier for the administration to handle on-campus protests. But there was just one problem. The University’s policy change neglected a higher rule: the First Amendment of the United States Constitution.
USC decided over the summer to require students to register protests with the University a whole two weeks in advance.
It’s unnecessary and dramatic to say that efficiency and regulatory control of the freedom of assembly is the first step to dictatorship, though it is true. Instead, we can start by arguing such policies are fundamentally contrary to the very mission that universities aim to accomplish. USC’s mission statement is: “We are private, unfettered by political control, strongly committed to academic freedom and proud of our entrepreneurial heritage.”
The primary function of “academic freedom” is for students to challenge the status quo. Students have been at the forefront of demonstrations and nationwide movements, and this certainly hasn’t always been to school administrators’ taste. Be it protesting the Vietnam War in the 1960s or gun laws just last year, students are frequently the ones who ignite the fire of dissent. Often, their passion is translated to actual policy in Washington, D.C.
The Foundation for Individual Rights in Education, an organization that ranks students’ First Amendment rights among university campuses across the country, moved USC to its “red” category after the changes were made, indicating that the University’s speech code “clearly and substantially” restricted students’ freedom of speech.
The University administration was not happy. It responded to FIRE’s statement by saying the reason for the changes was to avoid potential conflicts and ensure adequate staffing.
“The University of Southern California strongly supports the free speech rights of our students,” Vice President for Student Affairs Ainsley Carry wrote in his response to FIRE. “And this extends to campus demonstrations.”
Safety should never be taken for granted. After all, rights come with responsibilities, and the First Amendment explicitly says our rights are limited to assembling “peaceably.” Protestors that ignore their responsibility to remain peaceful can and should face consequences. The University certainly has the obligation to keep its students safe and ensure the safety of everyone involved in protests, but it cannot mask this duty by seizing the power to regulate who protests when. The two duties can — and must — coexist.
After receiving backlash, the University is beginning to backtrack on the policy change. USC announced it would reword its speech code so that demonstrators would not have to register in advance. While the exact changes are still unclear, the Daily Trojan reported that even without the registration requirement, the policy will still “strongly encourage” students to register their demonstrations beforehand.
This is the very most students should settle for. If USC truly wants to be a University that promotes “academic freedom,” it must limit how much it regulates on-campus protests to, at the very most, “strongly encouraging” pre-registration.
Fittingly, the First Amendment was the vehicle used to fight against the University’s regulation of the First Amendment. The pushback from students and the public, and the subsequent response from the administration, shows how important a collective voice can be.
We must keep the First Amendment alive at USC because when the First Amendment loses, we all lose.