Fourth Circuit Rules University Did Not Violate Student Groups’ Rights

RICHMOND, Va. (CN) – The Fourth Circuit ruled Thursday that the University of South Carolina did not harass or otherwise impede the of two student groups asked to address concerns about a “Free Speech Event” they planned to hold on the campus.

In 2015, two student groups, the College Libertarians at the University of South Carolina and the Young Americans for Liberty, sought and received approval to hold an event intended to highlight what they perceive as threats to free expression on college campuses.

The groups told school officials they intended to include visual displays of material that had provoked free-speech controversies at other schools, including a swastika. The university said this wouldn’t be a problem and, according to court documents, the event took place “without interference.”

Later, however, other students complained about the event, saying they objected to the displays and accusing the sponsors of making sexist and racist statements at the scene.

A university official met with plaintiff Ross Abbott, one of the event’s student sponsors, to review the complaints, but concluded that there was no cause for a further investigation and informed Abbott the matter had been dropped.

But Abbott and the other event sponsors were far from mollified. They sued the university, claiming it violated their First Amendment rights when it required Abbott to a attend a meeting to discuss the complaints about the event.

They also claimed the university’s policy on harassment is unconstitutionally vague and overly broad.

Senior U.S. District Judge Margaret Seymour rejected both claims and entered summary judgment for the university.

On August 16, the Fourth Circuit affirmed that ruling on both counts.

Writing for the three-judge panel, U.S. Circuit Judge Pamela Harris wrote that the university “neither prevented the plaintiffs from holding their Free Speech Event nor sanctioned them after the fact.”

“Its prompt and minimally intrusive resolution of subsequent student complaints does not rise to the level of a First Amendment violation,” she continued. “And because the plaintiffs cannot show a credible threat that the University will enforce its harassment policy against their speech in the future, they lack standing to pursue their facial attack on the policy.”

A footnote in the opinion states that two additional claims presented to the district court are no longer at issue in the case.

In their complaint, the footnote says, the plaintiffs raised First Amendment objections to a university statement of ideals, described as the “Carolinian Creed,” and university policies designating so-called “Free Speech Zones” on campus.

But Harris, an Obama appointee, noted that since the suit was filed, the university has revised those policies and therefore the plaintiffs’ challenge to them is moot. The plaintiffs did not challenge that ruling on appeal.

The university did not respond to a request for comment from Courthouse News.

Brett Harris, a senior at USC and organizer with Young Americans For Liberty At The University Of South Carolina, said he’s disappointed by the Fourth Circuit’s ruling.

“It’s the wrong decision to make and it doesn’t protect the First Amendment at all,” he said.

“The point of the protest was to do things and have things on display to provoke a reaction,” Harris said.

“If you say something the university does not like all [other students] have to do is complain and the university can shut you down no matter where you are,” he said. “It’s a policy that is designed out of decency but it ends up denying free speech.”

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