Campus Free Speech

Student Investigated for 'Triggering' Posters Files First Amendment Lawsuit

Censoring a free speech display at the University of South Carolina.

|

Silence
Dreamstime

Libertarian students at the University of South Carolina are suing the institution for interrogating them over a free speech display. Other students accused them of posting "triggering" material, prompting a formal investigation. 

Student Ross Abbott created an outdoor First Amendment display highlighting kinds of speech that had been subjected to censorship, according to the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education. Abbott even took the extra step of actually obtaining prior approval from administrators. But that did not stop several of his fellow students from filing complaints. 

"What struck me most was the way one of the filers framed their grievance," Abbott told Reason. "It was from another student activist whose complaint was essentially that their organization constantly had to worry about campus censorship when they held or advertised events on campus and, therefore, that my group should too." 

Even though administrators had approved the display, Abbott was still given official notice that he was being investigated for discrimination. He was eventually called before the Office of Equal Opportunity Programs and made to answer for each and every poster he had displayed. Thankfully, the matter was quietly dropped afterward. 

But that's not quite good enough. Since the university did not respond to Abbott's request to have the complaint expunged from his academic record—and because USC gave no indication that it understood Abbott's speech was constitutionally protected—he has filed suit. The law firm of Davis Wright Tremaine is representing him. 

Abbott's situation is a great example of how university "bias incident" reporting policies—which are ubiquitous—can have a censorious effect on free expression. It also shows how they can create a kind of race to the bottom, where everyone on campus feels entitled to snitch on each other because of compliance principles. 

"I have hope that the propensity for students to endorse or even demand censorship that we're seeing at USC (and nationwide) is just a phase for my generation," said Abbott.

NEXT: A.M. Links: GOP Debate Tonight, Bernie vs. Hillary, Apple vs. FBI

Editor's Note: We invite comments and request that they be civil and on-topic. We do not moderate or assume any responsibility for comments, which are owned by the readers who post them. Comments do not represent the views of Reason.com or Reason Foundation. We reserve the right to delete any comment for any reason at any time. Report abuses.

  1. Hopefully he doesn’t settle with them. The only way this trend gets tamped down is in the courts.

    1. I have the impression that the complainant that is spreading the misery around is trying to do just that. Create a case where the courts will kill it.

      It looks like the school saw it coming and tried to duck by going through the motions of the hearing and then dropping the whole thing. I guess they didn’t duck low enough.

  2. “triggering” material

    Triggering what?

    1. Triggering emotions, something speech should never be allowed to do.

      1. “Triggering emotions, something speech should never be allowed to do.”

        I’ve always wondered what the reaction of an actual SJW would be if they spent a day dealing with the abuse people give each other in the Reason comment section.

        Suicide maybe? Psychotic breakdown? I think this needs further study.

        1. I’ve always wondered what the reaction of an actual SJW would be if they spent a day dealing with the abuse people give each other in the Reason comment section.

          Suicide maybe? Psychotic breakdown? I think this needs further study.

          I think this was the story of Mary.

          1. Actually, when Mary first showed up, she was an utter asshole.

            THIS STORY REMINDS ME OF A ROOMMATE I HAD WHEN I WAS 18. SHE WAS A VEGETARIAN EXCEPT WHEN I BOUGHT A COOKED CHICKEN. SHE WAS AGAINST FUR COATS BUT WORE A FUR COAT THAT WAS USED & THEREFORE OK. I WOULD THINK YOU WOULD TAKE DOWN THE TWITTER INFO ON YOUR WEBSITE BUT THEN AGAIN…

            1. Messed up the tags.

              The last paragraph was something along the lines of:

              She wasn’t broken here. She was broke before she got here.

              1. Even when she snuck back under the “rather crazy than libertarian” handle, her “I”m normal” handle, she was unhinged:

                Here she is posting 137 comments in a 410 comment thread, before threaded comments.

                1. I don’t like that they purged all of the emails.

        2. I’ve always wondered what the reaction of an actual SJW would be if they spent a day dealing with the abuse people give each other in the Reason comment section.

          I’m pretty sure the occasional tard who’s dropped by, shit on a thread, been called a retard who should die in a fire and all manner of much, much worse things often end up trolling (Tony, AmSoc, PB, JackAss etc.). The fragile ones who have never been outside of their safe space probably end up found in a fetal position in the corner of their dorm room muttering about woodchippers and sobbing uncontrollably while cutting themselves after not being seen around campus for several days.

          The one’s who accidentally click on a link to one of SugarFree’s writings are found with their belt or shoe lace tied around their necks hanging from a doorknob with their pants around their ankles and “Warty Hugeman” carved into their chests.

        3. Suicide by woodchipper?

      2. I’ve always wanted to teach a seminar in the Way of Kolinahr.

        1. Every fourteenth semester you get your choice of co-eds.

    2. THE NEED FOR A SAFE SPACE!!!

      *bursts into tears*

      /SJW

      1. Goddamnit. I guess refreshing the page is still a thing.

        1. Meh, refreshing the page is over-rated.

    3. “Triggering” as it’s used by SJWs is a meaningless phenomenon. It essentially removes all agency from the individual being “triggered” and renders everyone the perpetual victims of a hostile universe. Bollocks.

      1. Yeah, it is totally stupid how they use it. For someone with severe PTSD who is triggered by certain things, the trigger could be anything. Going around searching for “triggering” language everywhere is pointless and idiotic. And absurd.

    4. MEEeeeeeee!

      *sobs uncontrollably, locks myself in a room full of playdough, crayons and unicorns*

  3. How absurd will this become? Can the student grandson of a Hungarian refugee demand that the word “Soviet Union” not appear in a syllabus? Can Anderson Cooper’s student son demand that any references to Cornelius Vanderbilt not mention “robber baron?” Can a union leader’s student daughter demand that any reference to “Pinkerton” be dropped from her history course? Should my libertarian grandson say that “FDR” triggers a fear or “LBJ” makes him tremble about the possible return of a draft where he has to go kill people he doesn’t know?

    1. I’ve started doing this with leftists to mock them when they talk about socialism or any brand of Marxism. I point out that I’m of an ethnic background that suffered at the hands of socialists and that it is an ideology of murder. They then usually try to explain the difference between their socialism (it’s the democratic kind even though they had mostly never used the term before Bernie did) and that socialism. Or they go with the tried and true ‘those weren’t real socialists/communists’ card.

      1. When I have the rare encounter with someone where the “those weren’t real socialists/.communists” comes up, I usually respond along the lines of “yeah, if they were real socialists/communists there wouldn’t have been survivors”.

        1. Reading through various descriptions of socialism, I’ve yet to encounter a single one that ISN’T described as “democratic” in theory. Economic decisions are to be made by “the people” or their properly elected representatives. Is tacking the word “democratic” onto a word that should already contain the idea of democracy just their way of clarifying that “Like, we really mean it this time, you guys”?

          It’s almost as though describing it as specifically democratic prevents it from going down the same road other attempts at socialism have gone. I’m sure it’ll work out this time.

      2. You misspelled “canard.”

  4. “I held an educational event for students to learn about their free speech rights. Apparently it was my school’s administrators that needed the lesson,” said Abbott. “Now, with FIRE’s help, we’re going to give it to them.”

    I hope he’s prepared for the learning curve he’s going to run into.

    1. Now, with FIRE’s help, we’re going to give it to them.

      Such a missed opportunity to end a sentence with “good and hard”.

  5. I’m so glad people are starting to fight back legally against campus bullshit like this and due process for those accused of rape.

  6. “He was eventually called before the Office of Equal Opportunity Programs and made to answer for each and every poster he had”.

    The Office of Equal Opportunity Programs calls people in to police what people say?

    Does it get more Orwellian than that?

    “Abbott even took the extra step of actually obtaining prior approval from administrators”.

    What do they call that committee, “The Office of Prior Restraint”?

    1. The Office of You Can Do it Your Own Way, If it’s Done Just How I Say.

    2. What happens if you tell the “Office of Equal Opportunity Programs” to pound sand?

      1. Thought the same thing…why not just ignore the officious little pricks (who are probably officious because of their little pricks)? There’s probably no quicker way to get a SJW worked up into a lather than to ignore them completely, thereby calling into question their sense of purpose. On the other hand, they’ve managed to conflate conduct with education, so you’d probably be expelled/suspened/whatever. If I were in that position, it would be tough to piss away whatever progress I’d made toward a degree at that point.

        A fun experiment, at the cost of whatever a semester’s worth of tuitionis, would be to enroll at the local university indoctrination center as an undeclared freshman, even though I was done with grad school long ago. Then I would make it my mission in life to trigger and piss off as many people as possible, just so I could ignore every single summons I got from the kangaroo courts, knowing full well I’d eventually be expelled.

        1. Apologies to Loki and Tom Bombadil, who got here first. Scrolling down the page to read the rest of the comments before I post my own is just to much to ask.

  7. This is beyond absurd. Everything; art, music literature,poetry,news reports,conversation,body-language,eye-contact or lack of, illicit emotion,or remembrance or some response/reaction. This is how we communicate. It cannot and should not be squelched.

    Seriously, WTF!!!!!

  8. Having read this article and the preceding comments, it is enough to encourage me to vote for Trump simply because he is the most egregious trigger out there. If “triggers” are in any sense real [and not just leverage for suppressing what they don’t like, which of course they are] one speech should be enough to send all the snowflakes into a catatonic state.

    1. “Some men just want to watch the world trigger”

      1. “Trigger? What difference, at this point, does Roy Rogers’s horse make?”

        [Puts on prism glasses, coughs uncontrollably]

  9. “”””Even though administrators had approved the display,”””

    This is even worse, I already knew the crazies would be against free speech but the above means that we are now calling administrator approved speech free speech

  10. I am so tempted to go back to college. Nothing could be more fun than triggering these morons.

    1. It would be worth getting expelled just to see the emotional carnage left in my wake. Plus, I’ll make a lot of money after suing the fuck out of the university.

  11. “He was eventually called before the Office of Equal Opportunity Programs”

    Is that in room 101?

    1. “You already know what’s in room 101. Everybody knows what’s in room 101.”
      Epi’s mom.

    2. Not the Appeals Sub-Committee?

    3. I dunno, I don’t think it’s Orwellian so much as it is Vonnegut(ian?).

      What’s so sinister about this is that the groups served by these actions are said to be ‘protected’ in terms of emotional state. By extension, government or some governing body should be given power to influence, respond to, and mitigate the emotional state of the populace directly. How can this fantasy germinate in an institution of ‘higher learning’?

      So, I ask the Office Of Equal Tardy Feelings: I know you think government control over these aspects of your lives and education is a good thing, but what do you do when a bunch of Republicans get elected one year? If you’ve stooped so low as to consider handing government or your superiors influence over your emotional state, ‘protecting’ it from dangerous speech, then consider: How does Donald Trump want you to feel? What kinds of ideas become triggering when a guy like Donald gets elected to your board, or your council, or your kangaroo court? What kinds of safe spaces will Donald’s influence build? Are you really so eager to demand these ‘protections’ from your government? I think you’re on the right track when you hear “protection” coming from a politician, and you take it in that ‘mafia-like activity’ way. Don’t whine about this shit to politicians, and don’t teach this shit in our schools, please.

    1. He’s such an epic piece of shit.

  12. It’s not pretty. But she is. “Dreamstime”.

    1. Her lips say no, but her eyes say yes. Unfortunately, her finger says no, too.

  13. For those whose lives have been disrupted by gun violence, trigger warnings are triggering.

      1. I. Just. Can’t. Even.

        1. The inmates are running the asylum.

      2. That might be the biggest sack of derp I’ve ever read.

  14. Does anyone else get to the end of the comments and start looking for the comments link?

  15. “It was from another student activist whose complaint was essentially that their organization constantly had to worry about campus censorship when they held or advertised events on campus and, therefore, that my group should too.”

    Teacher! Teacher! Billy broke my jump rope! It’s not fair! Make him break Timmy’s jump rope too!

  16. “What struck me most was the way one of the filers framed their grievance,” Abbott told Reason. “It was from another student activist whose complaint was essentially that their organization constantly had to worry about campus censorship when they held or advertised events on campus and, therefore, that my group should too.”

    Well, duh… just like how the solution to cops killing blacks disproportionately to whites is for cops to kill more whites to even things out. Not to correct the systemic lack of accountability, end the drug war, and all the other problems with our militarized police force. No, the solution is kill more whiteys. /actual argument some left-tards have made

    Abbott’s situation is a great example of how university “bias incident” reporting policies?which are ubiquitous?can have a censorious effect on free expression. It also shows how they can create a kind of race to the bottom, where everyone on campus feels entitled to snitch on each other because of compliance principles.

    That’s exactly what these shitheads want: to be able to snitch on anyone for any reason and get people in trouble for wrongthink. These are the people who would gladly round up their fellow citizens (wreckers and kulaks) into cattle cars headed for camps when/ if it ever comes to that. They’re power tripping authoritarian assholes who want nothing more than to ruin the lives of anyone they dislike.

  17. My new hobby: mentally substituting “finger” for “trigger”.

    1. That’s fingering!

  18. “It also shows how they can create a kind of race to the bottom….”

    TRIGGER WARNING NEEDED!!

    “Bottom” is a body location on which a Rape Culture Enabled male oppressor exercising his Male Privilege can commit sexual assault against a Rape Survivor. Please issue a Trigger Warning or use a less problematic term.

    1. Your screen name is TRIGGERING for anyone who have ever been shat upon by someone with a scat fetish.

      PLEASE CHANGE IT IMMEDIATELY OR I’M TELLING!

      1. Accusing me of being triggering is triggering to me! And it constitutes hate speech!

    2. The fact that you ignored “race” is problematic.

      1. Is he going to “trigger” blacks or cripples by failing to mention “race”?

        1. I think we should start saying “the t-word” since trigger rhymes with…dare I write it?

        2. “race to the bottom”

          1. You who else put a race at the bottom?

            1. I won’t say ‘John Holmes’ if you won’t.

            2. I won’t say ‘John Holmes’ if you won’t.

  19. Office of Equal Opportunity Programs

    Why would this even be a thing?

  20. You know those people that ask idiots to sign petitions banning water and shit? We need them to go around college campuses asking to ban names that trigger people…basically what the imbeciles at Princeton want to do. Or like the people at Lebanon Valley College want to do.

    Get a petition to ban AG Lynch from having anything to do with cases that involve descendants of slaves. I’d be willing to bet you get a bunch of dickheads sign it.

  21. I apologize for my generation.

  22. It seems our young people try to be offended these days. I believe people should try their best to be respectful but if they aren’t stop whining about it.

  23. Abbott even took the extra step of actually obtaining prior approval from administrators.

    *sigh*

    1. Good for building a case.

  24. Is it me or is this post maddeningly vague about what actually happened?

    In the linked story

    “The free speech event, held in a USC “free speech zone” on November 23, 2015, featured information about 11 instances of campus censorship…These examples included Modesto Junior College in California preventing a student from handing out copies of the U.S. Constitution; Chicago State University censoring a faculty blog; and George Washington University suspending a Jewish student for placing a souvenir Hindu swastika, obtained on a trip to India, on his residence hall’s bulletin board. ‘

    ok

    then this happened

    “Abbott and YAL President Michael Kriete met with Assistant Director of the Office of Equal Opportunity Programs Carl Wells, a defendant in the lawsuit, for 45 minutes. Wells required Abbott to answer for each poster by explaining the situation it described and justifying the message that he and the others were trying to send. In response, Abbott gave Wells a letter asking that his disciplinary record be expunged, that the university clarify that controversial speech that is protected by the First Amendment will not be penalized under USC policies, and that USC adopt the Chicago Principles, a reaffirmation of the importance of free speech and academic freedom on campus.’

    It sounds to me almost like the ‘basis for the disagreement’ (the posters?) is irrelevant, and that its really just a bureaucratic fight over procedural demands.

  25. The ‘basis for the disagreement’ is that an Office of Equal Opportunity Programs exists and is allowed to arbitrarily harangue students whenever they fill whatever nebulous criteria occur to them, using made-up labels and descriptors such as “triggering” to justify censorship and encourage/promote what must by necessity become propaganda. Students ask that these institutions have these powers over them. They actually ask for this.

  26. Logan . if you think Albert `s posting is terrific, on saturday I got themselves a Chevrolet Corvette after bringing in $9913 recently and would you believe, 10-k lass month . this is certainly the most-financialy rewarding Ive ever had . I began this eight months/ago and immediately made myself over $82.. per/hr . check this site out…
    Clik this link in Your Browser..

    ————? http://www.Wage30.com

  27. Logan . if you think Albert `s posting is terrific, on saturday I got themselves a Chevrolet Corvette after bringing in $9913 recently and would you believe, 10-k lass month . this is certainly the most-financialy rewarding Ive ever had . I began this eight months/ago and immediately made myself over $82.. per/hr . check this site out…
    Clik this link in Your Browser..

    ————? http://www.Wage30.com

Please to post comments

Comments are closed.