Protected Speech

The First Amendment protects the exercise of free speech in ways that sometimes makes us uncomfortable, and our courts – for over a hundred years – have applied the First Amendment to protect speech that is insulting, outrageous and offensive. The First Amendment protects most speech that is commonly considered “hate speech.” Under the California Leonard Law, the university cannot discipline a student for speech protected by the First Amendment, even when members of the community find it offensive. This includes wearing political messages or slogans on a hat, shirt, or other clothing.  

While we hope and encourage all members of our community to embody the university’s Unifying Values, including our commitment to diversity, equity, inclusion and well-being, many statements that may conflict with those values cannot serve as grounds for student discipline. The university in no way condones hate speech and asks that all members of our community engage in dialogue that is respectful of others. We learn when we listen. However, the best (and lawful) answer to hate speech, rather than disciplinary action, is to foster an environment that allows each individual or group to contest the ideas that they oppose and to win over others to their point of view.

If any member of our community is negatively affected by speech, including statements that are legally protected, the university has resources available to help. The Office for Equity, Equal Opportunity, and Title IX (EEO-TIX) maintains a list of both private and confidential resources that are available to students who need support. Members of our community can report harmful and hateful statements to the Office for Equity, Equal Opportunity, and Title IX, the Department of Public Safety, and the Office of Threat Assessment and Management.  Doing so will enable the university to evaluate whether the statements violate university policies, provide support to affected individuals, and evaluate if there are other steps that can be taken in response.

It is important to note that while free speech law protects a wide array of topics and viewpoints, including controversial ones, the university has established policies addressing the time, place, and manner in which certain forms of expression may be restricted. Situational factors are important in determining whether certain behaviors and speech are acceptable in the classroom vs in a res hall or at the Village with friends because where speech occurs matters. As part of USC’s commitment to scholarly inquiry and education, professors have the ability to hold students to a standard of professionalism regarding conduct in their classrooms so as to not interfere with the educational experience of others. For example, student speech that interferes with order and decorum in the classroom and instruction in a course may be restricted by the instructor. In addition, the instructor may require that discussion in a course be kept to the subject of the course or other academically relevant topics, as reasonably determined by the instructor.