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Free Speech at USC

August 28, 2011

Below is a modified version of a petition circulated by the USC chapter of Students for Justice in Palestine last spring regarding an unsettling run in with campus security (DPS) and the administration regarding free speech on campus. While signing the petition is no longer useful, it aptly illustrates the problems of free speech at USC.


Dear Michael L. Jackson and University of Southern California Administration,


We have two demands that are intended to benefit the university student body as a whole, not just members of Students for Justice in Palestine. We think both demands are reasonable and easily placable:


1. USC should start immediately to craft a specific and comprehensive policy of what is and what is not free speech on campus. Without such a policy, we are subject to the whims of individual DPS officers or university officials and can never be sure of our rights on campus.


2. We want an assurance from USC that DPS officers or university officials will not intimidate students again for exercising their constitutionally protected free speech.



As members and supporters of Students for Justice in Palestine, we have felt uncomfortable and unsettled by USC’s lack of a clear policy on free speech at the university. When some of us have been on campus exercising our right to free speech and our right to demonstrate, we have been repeatedly told what and where to do things but not according to any specific or concrete set of guidelines or policies.


On multiple occasions, DPS officers and administration officials have barked commands at us for what we strongly believe is our basic right. During one particularly disturbing episode, after our member Marwa Katbi refused to follow orders from DPS officers to move from where she was silently and peacefully holding up a sign, Michael L. Jackson, Vice President of Student Affairs, told her, “when somebody like me tells you to move, you move.” After she and other SJP members continued to insist on her right to protest peacefully, Jackson and DPS left the scene and did not return. Were SJP demonstrators right all along in what they deemed to be their right to free speech? If so, why were DPS officers and a USC official so insistent and disrespectful to them in the first place?


Having heightened our interest in free speech on campus, some of us attended the event “Campus Conversation: Free Speech” on March 8th, 2011 hosted by USC (1). We found, as did the resulting articles in the Daily Trojan (2) and on the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education website (3), the event to be extremely insufficient at answering even the most basic questions regarding free speech on campus. During the Q & A after the presentation, speaker and member of USC’s Legal Counsel Steve Yamaguchi repeatedly prefaced each answer with “I can’t speak for the university, but my personal opinion is …” and would give responses that were vague and unhelpful. If students can’t find out about free speech on campus at a USC event explicitly about free speech, it would seem virtually impossible to ever learn concretely what our rights are.


In his article, The Misapplication of Peer Harassment Law on College and University Campuses and the Loss of Student Speech Rights, in The Journal for College and University Law, Azhar Majeed writes that “some colleges and universities have drafted and maintained harassment policies which by their very terms are constitutionally vague, overbroad, or both…. By targeting and punishing students for engaging in constitutionally protected speech, these institutions are ignoring the importance on a college or university campus of allowing for robust speech rights, rigorous debate and discussion, and the unfettered exchange of ideas.” Majeed continues: “Whether such misapplication [of harassment policies] is intentional and stems from a desire to remove certain expression from campus, or rather is the result of misunderstanding the law, the end result is that some administrators are interfering with students’ speech rights.” (4) Throughout the article, Majeed cites numerous examples where the misapplication of university harassment codes have resulted in repeated court rulings in favor of students’ rights and against universities for restricting free speech.


According to USC’s SCampus, “the University of Southern California is committed to fostering a learning environment where free inquiry and expression are encouraged and celebrated and for which all its members share responsibility.” We only wish that USC live up to its stated and legally obligated policy to protect free speech on campus in a clear and uniform way.


We look forward to hearing from you as soon as possible.



The Undersigned






(4) Majeed, Azhar. The Misapplication of Peer Harassment Law on College and University Campuses and the Loss of Student Speech Rights. The Journal for College and University Law. May 7, 2009.


2 Comments leave one →
  1. Peaceful Protest Advocate!! permalink
    October 23, 2011 6:02 am

    I enjoyed reading your letter. I have attended USC for 2 years now and have read the free speech/protest policy at USC and I think its pretty simple to understand. USC is a PRIVATE UNIVERSITY. Not a public school such as Berkley. USC being a private university are allowed to set their own rules when it comes to protest and free speech and what is allowed on their campus. Its like walking onto someones private porch and chanting your views. Which is illegal, but standing on the side walk is perfectly fine because your not on their PRIVATE PROPERTY. USC is a school that allows someone to speak and protest when doing it in a respectful way.

    If you would like to have more clarification on the rules contact the Student Scheduling office. I contacted the Student Scheduling office about the free speech and protest procedures after encountering a disturbing “protest” by my fellow USC students at Bovard. There were approx 50 students in front of Bovard chanting with signs. After about 5 minutes of listening to the organizer speaking about rushing into the building and going to the presidents office, they did!! Yelling and running like a mob of gangsters. This was not peaceful or pleasant to watch. I could only imagine what the poor staff inside the location were thinking and feeling while the students went in yelling and screaming. DPS had to go into the location and tell people to come out. The whole building was on lock down after.
    Could you imagine sitting inside an office , you an administrative assistant and people running in yelling, angry, with signs on wooden stakes into your office not knowing the extreme they would go thru to get their personal view across. I myself would have a nervous breakdown, and want to protect my self by any means necessary.

    Student Scheduling stated they or the university does not mind scheduling a peaceful protest for students if they were to follow the simple rules.

    1) They schedule it with Student Scheduling so they can notify DPS and fellow staff members about the protest so that DPS can tell callers that are complaining that its an scheduled event and they (protesters) have the right to be there. Also, so DPS does not have to respond or administration does not have to respond to figure out what is going on. Also, so DPS and administration can PROTECT the protesters from people passing by that they have a problem with the protest. !! (VERY IMPORTANT)

    2) That the protest is peaceful and does not violate anyone else s free speech rights

    3) Is not intimidating to the USC community

    4) Do not have stakes attached to their signs which can possibly become a safety hazard. And they clarified that signs are fine to have, just with the stakes.

    5) Protesters are not in a building disturbing university business or classes.

    Hopefully this will help you clarify what is allowed at USC as far as protest go. I love to see students that say their opinion and stand up for a cause. And, if its something that I believe in I will push in the crowd and stand there besides you if its done in a peaceful way. There is something wrong with someone that is voicing their opinion but doing it so negative that they look like idiots!!


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