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USC, Clemson Policies Threaten Students’ Free-Speech Rights, Group Contends

While students are getting their higher education, they might want to watch what they say while they’re on campus.

The University of South Carolina and Clemson University have rules or policies that violate or could violate the First Amendment, says the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education (FIRE), a nonprofit organization that rates large U.S. colleges and universities on how they adhere to the rights of free speech, assembly, press, petition and religion.

In a study released earlier this year, FIRE, an educational foundation in Philadelphia, examined speech codes, harassment policies and other rules at the two South Carolina universities. FIRE based its ratings on three colored “lights”: green, yellow and red.

USC  was flagged with the most restrictive red-light rating, while Clemson garnered a yellow-light rating.

A green light indicates that the foundation couldn’t find any school policy “that seriously imperils speech,” according to FIRE’s rating scale. (Green, however, doesn’t mean that a school actively supports free expression, but rather that FIRE couldn’t find any threats to students’ free speech rights in school policies.)

Yellow means that a school has some policies that could ban or excessively regulate protected speech. 

A red light signifies that a school has at least one policy that both “clearly and substantially” restricts freedom of speech, according to FIRE’s website. A “clear” restriction is one that “unambiguously infringes” on what is or should be protected expression, while a “substantial” restriction on free speech is one that is “broadly applicable to important categories of campus expression.”

Contacted Tuesday, FIRE’s Senior Vice President Robert Shibley told The Nerve  that USC’s anti-sexual harassment and discrimination policies, and parts of the Carolina Creed require “filtered speech.”

“Your opinion can’t be conditioned to the subjective reaction of the listener,” Shibley said.

A USC policy, for example, says “discriminatory harassment” includes all types of discriminatory conduct – oral, written, graphic or physical – directed against anyone.

“Let’s say you call someone stupid for voting for Obama or Romney,” Shibley said. “‘You’re stupid if you vote for Obama.’ ‘You’re stupid for voting for Romney.’ Just by saying that, you’re violating the discriminatory policy,” Shibley said.

Shibley said the problems were more “vague” with the Carolina Creed, a statement that spells out the university’s values.

On the one hand, the creed encourages students to practice good behavior, he said. But based on the university’s creed policy, “commitment to this ideal is inconsistent with behaviors which…demean…individuals or groups, including hazing, most forms of intimidating, taunting, teasing, baiting, ridiculing,” which Shibley contends is impossible to control on a college campus.

Shibley said he understands the ban on hazing, but not on teasing.

“No teasing is unreal on a college campus,” he said. “To require someone to be polite to all people at all times is impossible; and at a state university like USC, it’s unconstitutional.”

The Nerve this week made several phone calls and sent emails to USC’s public relations and equal- opportunity program to talk to someone knowledgeable about the school’s harassment policies, but no one responded by publication of this story.

With Clemson, its anti-sexual harassment policy isn’t as definitive as USC’s, so the Upstate university received a yellow-light rating, Shibley said.

For example, Clemson’s policy says verbal sexual harassment can include various actions, whereas USC’s policy is more definitive.

Shibley said students making sexual jokes about either gender is not sexual harassment.

“Sexual harassment is a pattern,” he said. “If you're calling the person a lot, stalking them, trying to grope them, then that's harassment.”

Alesia Smith, Clemson's director of community and ethical standards, told The Nerve on Tuesday that she was not aware of the FIRE study.

"I'd have to understand (FIRE's) ratings before I agree or disagree with them,” she said.

“We review our policies on an annual basis, so we want to make sure that no one's rights are infringed upon,” Smith continued. “I think our General Council for Clemson University does a good job of reviewing our policies."

Shibley defended FIRE’s rating system, noting that student lawsuits over free-speech restrictions cited by his organization have been successful.

“We’ve never had a challenged red-light code that wasn’t overturned,” he said.

USC and Clemson weren’t the only large schools that didn’t get high marks from FIRE. Schools on the “12 Worst Colleges for Free Speech in 2012” included Syracuse University, Harvard University, Yale University and Tufts University.

Also on the list was Johns Hopkins University, where one student was forced to complete 300 hours of community service, read 12 books and write a paper on each, and attend an approved workshop on diversity and race relations – all for posting Facebook invitations deemed “offensive“ by the university, according to the FIRE study.

FIRE was founded in 1999 and has been rating the biggest 400 colleges and universities in the country since 2006, according to its website.

Reach Legette at (803) 254-4411 or derek@thenerve.org.

Higher Education

University of South Carolina Foundation for Individual Rights in Education Clemson University