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Abbott v. Pastides

From February 2016 to March 2019
University of South Carolina (Public college or university)
Columbia, SC, United States

Identity of Speakers

  • Ross Abbott
    Student
    Other

    Ross Abbott was a student at the University of South Carolina who organized a "Free Speech Event" on campus.

Additional Information

  • Incident Nature:
    Rally or protest
    Recognized student group event
    Other
  • Incident Responses:
    University administration not protective of speech
  • Incident Status:
    Dismissed
  • No protest Occured
  • Was Speech Code incident

Summary

In 2013, the University of South Carolina adopted “STAF 6.24,” a harassment policy that was purportedly designed to limit discrimination and harassment while ostensibly encouraging the open exchange of ideas. Under the policy, “harassment” includes speech that “may include, but is not limited to, objectionable epithets, [and] demeaning depictions or treatments,” as well as “specific types of illegal discrimination . . . directed at students because of a protected characteristics such as race, religion, national origin, or sex.”   Unacceptable “verbal conduct” includes “unwelcome and inappropriate letters, telephone calls, electronic mail, or other communication or gifts.” The policy also includes a statement that it will only apply to “behavior and speech that is not constitutionally protected and which limits or denies the rights of students to participate or benefit in the educational program.”

In 2015, Ross Abbott, a student at the University of South Carolina, sought approval on behalf of two student groups to hold a “Free Speech Event” on campus.  The event was intended to draw attention to national threats to campus free speech and featured symbols that had been censored on other campuses, including an Indian good luck symbol that represents a swastika. Kim McMahon, USC’s Director of Campus Life, approved the event, stating that she saw “no controversy in educating [the] campus about what was happening in the world” and that “the event would be a chance to learn and grow (and even be a bit uncomfortable), not further any intolerance, censorship or acts of incivility.”

The event was held on November 23, 2015. Students displayed posters that included a red swastika and the word “wetback,” and distributed flyers decrying acts of censorship on college campuses. During the event McMahon fielded of several complaints about the group’s conduct from faculty and students, but chose not to interfere with the Event. After the “Free Speech Event” concluded, the University’s Office of Equal Opportunity Programs received three complaints about the event. The complainants objected to the symbols and language displayed at the Event, and the behavior of the student organizers, alleging that they had made “sexist and racist statements” to USC students. The next day Abbott received a letter from Carl Wells, the Assistant Director of the University’s Equal Opportunity Programs and Deputy Title IX Coordinator, informing him of the complaints and requesting that he contact the office to “fully discuss the charges as alleged.” The letter further stated that Abbott should not contact the complainant or discuss the complaint with anyone. The letter also erroneously purported to include a “Notice of Charge,” which the University later claimed was the result of a clerical error.

Several weeks later Abbott and the president of Young Americans for Liberty met with Wells. Wells repeatedly assured the students that the meeting was for the purpose of fact-finding, and that the University was “just trying to understand.” Two weeks after the meeting Wells sent a letter informing Abbott that the University had found “no cause for investigating the complaint.”

In February 2016 Abbot and the two student groups filed a § 1983 action in federal district court in South Carolina alleging that University officials had violated their First Amendment rights. Specifically, they alleged that the University had applied “STAF 6.24” in a manner that chilled their speech by requiring Abbott to meet with a University Official. Additionally, they argued that “STAF 6.24” was unconstitutionally broad and vague, and sought a permanent injunction restraining its future enforcement.  The district court granted summary judgment to the University defendants finding that the University’s inquiry into the Free Speech Event did not constitute a violation of the First Amendment and that the plaintiffs lacked standing to challenge “STAF 6.24” as the students did not face a credible threat the policy would be enforced against them in the future. The Fourth Circuit Court of Appeals affirmed the district court’s decision, and the U.S. Supreme Court denied the plaintiffs’ petition for certiorari.