Frequently Asked Questions

Frequently Asked Questions

What is protected speech?

The First Amendment protects speech that many people might consider insulting, outrageous and offensive, including what is commonly considered “hate speech.” This has been established law for over a century. Although these forms of speech can be deeply upsetting, the entire point of free speech is to allow other people to say things – without fear of censure or punishment by some central authority – that you may disagree with profoundly.

Although USC is a private university, the California Leonard Law prohibits California private universities like USC from disciplining students for engaging in speech protected by the First Amendment.

Why does the university believe in free speech?

Aside from the legal requirements imposed by the First Amendment and the California Leonard Law, any great university depends on the collision of beliefs and ideas. Academic growth, personal development, and the advancement of knowledge are catalyzed when we are able to test our own beliefs against those with dissenting, controversial, and unpopular views. This is true in the classroom, in the research lab, and in our daily interactions with other members of our community. Indeed, the true test of a university’s commitment to free speech and academic freedom lies in its willingness to protect unpopular and unconventional viewpoints.

The university’s Free Speech Policy, Faculty Handbook, and Student Handbook set forth the university’s commitment to free speech and academic freedom for students and faculty.  

What if someone at USC posts something on their social media that I believe is racist or misogynistic?

Let’s say a USC student or other member of our community posts a statement on their personal social media page expressing support for an organization that many believe promotes racist and misogynistic viewpoints. Even though the statement may cause serious discomfort, alarm, and concern, it would likely be treated as protected speech if it does not include a specific threat against an individual and does not rise to the level of harassment or discrimination that the university is legally permitted to prohibit.

What is unprotected speech?

Free speech does not protect incitements to riot, true threats, fighting words, obscenity, defamation or speech that infringes on the First Amendment rights of others. See the USC Student Handbook, Appendix IV, and visit the counter-protesting and heckler’s veto pages for more information.

What if someone threatens me personally because of how I identify?

If you feel that you have been personally threatened because of your protected class status, please reach out to a reporting office – the Office of Equity, Equal Opportunity, and Title IX, the Office of Professionalism and Ethics, and/or the Department of Public Safety. An expression of potential violence against a specific individual that could unreasonably interfere with the student’s ability to participate in the university’s educational programs on the basis of a protected characteristic is not protected under the First Amendment. In addition, if this threat is through an act of vandalism on university property, that may be a separate violation of the Student Conduct Code

I understand that my classmate’s negative comments are protected by free speech, but how can the university support me when I feel these comments are hurtful?

Although the university may be barred from disciplining a student for making offensive, inflammatory, or alarming statements that are nevertheless protected by law, that does not mean that the university supports such statements or does not care about you. For any member of our community who has been negatively impacted by speech, the Office for Equity, Equal Opportunity, and Title IX maintains a list of both private and confidential resources that are available to individuals who need support. Members of our community can report matters 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 there has been a violation of university policies, provide support to affected individuals, and evaluate if there are other steps that can be taken in response.

I want to organize a protest. What can I do?

For planning, coordination, and safety reasons, students should reserve a space with Trojan Event Services (TES) prior to their demonstration. Without a reservation, the university may not be able to accommodate your event due to other scheduled activities or safety considerations.

This guide to planning a demonstration provides helpful information to consider as well.

Can I protest anywhere on campus?

Students cannot protest wherever they wish on campus because the university has the right to place reasonable time, place and manner restrictions on protests and can take steps to prevent the disruption of university activities, to promote safety and to protect university property and assets.

Students can hold events and demonstrations in reserved, designated spaces during appropriate times. For planning, coordination, and safety reasons, students should reserve a space with Trojan Event Services (TES) prior to their demonstration.

Without a reservation, the university may not be able to accommodate your event due to other scheduled activities or safety considerations. Due to time, place, and manner restrictions, demonstrations should not take place outside of the normal operating hours of the location of the demonstration or event. They also should not interfere with classes or other scheduled academic, educational, cultural/arts programs, or with use of USC’s libraries.

What does time, place, and manner mean?

Free speech rights are not unlimited or unbounded. Where speech occurs matters. The First Amendment allows the university to place restrictions on free speech rights that allow it to prescribe when, where and how free speech rights can be exercised provided it is not discriminating based on the content of protected speech.  For example, the university can restrict the ability to protest in locations that would interfere with its ability to provide instruction, to provide clinical services or to conduct research.  The university can limit speech in a classroom when it is disruptive of the learning environment or unrelated to the course material. The university may also impose decibel limits and prohibit the use of bullhorns. 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.

Will USC staff be present at a student demonstration

The USC Student Life Free Expression team will be present at demonstrations and will work to protect lawful freedom of expression, and ensure the university’s regular and essential operations and activities continue and that the safety of the university community is not compromised. Staff members serve as neutral facilitators, maintaining a safe environment for dissenters to freely express their voices and opinions, while providing event organizers space to host an event without disruption.

Can the university cancel an event or meeting if the administration or campus community disagrees with the speaker’s views?

Consistent with the university’s Free Speech Policy, the university does not cancel events or meetings that have been properly scheduled and approved simply in response to disagreement by either the university or community, unless the event as organized poses risks to health and safety.  One of the great strengths of USC is that we are a place where interesting and sometimes provocative speakers representing a diverse range of talents, expertise, and viewpoints want to come and engage with our community.  It would undermine academic freedom and set a troubling precedent if the university were to begin prohibiting certain individuals (but not others) from speaking simply because their ideologies or points of view were deemed controversial. However, the university may impose reasonable time, place, and manner restrictions on events, and for safety reasons may direct an event to a different location, or online, based on safety or other considerations.

Students are free to express disagreement with the views expressed on campus by an individual speaker, but they cannot obstruct, disrupt, or interfere with a presentation, seminar, or other event. The First Amendment does not protect what is called the “heckler’s veto.” Students may peacefully protest outside the event’s location or hold up signs silently at the back of the room during the speaker’s presentation.