South Carolina student group stymied by free speech zones

University of South Carolina students affiliated with Young Americans for Liberty were prevented from meeting on campus in late August because they are not an official student group, but the group’s leaders worry that recognition will offer little reprieve from restrictive speech policies.

After learning that YAL lacked status as a recognized student organization (RSO) at USC, the group decided to hold an informal meeting on August 26 to discuss the application process and how it should function in the interim. The students had initially planned to meet in an empty classroom on campus, but opted instead to congregate in the lobby area of the building after learning that only RSO’s are allowed to utilize university facilities.

As it convened, however, the group was intercepted in the hallway by Kim McMahon, the Director of Campus Life and the Russell House University Union, which handles facility reservations for student groups. McMahon informed the attendees that they are prohibited from engaging in any type of organized activity on school grounds because they are not technically affiliated with the university.

After speaking with two of the group’s leaders individually, McMahon then led the entire assemblage into a nearby classroom to discuss the process by which YAL could become an official student group, an exchange that was captured in a video provided to Campus Reform.

Brett Harris, who founded the YAL group last school year and served as its president, told Campus Reform that he was present for the initial confrontation, and was also one of the students taken aside.

“I was sort of ‘abducted’ is what I’ve been calling it,” he said, adding, “I was told some blatantly unconstitutional things while I was in there.” According to Harris, McMahon “read university policy to me, and said that USC has the ability to regulate what happens on its campus … who does what, who says what, etc.”

Moreover, Harris said he was told that, because he is taking the semester off (in part to serve as the state chair for YAL), he would not be allowed to join the subsequent group discussion, nor would he be able to participate in group activities since he is not technically a student this semester.

“It was rough, to be honest with you,” he said of the private conversation. “It was really rough.”

Inside the classroom, McMahon explained that under the university policy governing student organizations, only RSO’s are allowed to reserve meeting spaces, post flyers, and recruit new members.

“The biggest thing about being registered is, it’s not just the space use, it’s also about being able to post flyers, recruit members … Those are the pieces that, to me, I would think are the most important,” she said.

Emily Larsen, a regional field coordinator for the Leadership Institute who was on hand to advise the YAL students, then asked McMahon to verify that the group is not allowed to recruit new members unless it is officially recognized.

“You can’t recruit our students if you’re not a registered student organization,” McMahon replied. “Like, with flyers around campus.”

“But you can recruit members by standing outside with a clipboard?”

“Not if you’re not a registered student organization,” McMahon asserted. “Not if you’re not affiliated with the university.”

USC defines solicitation to include “recruitment of members or support for an organization or cause,” as well as “distributing advertising or other materials,” and even, somewhat perplexingly, “compiling data for surveys, programs, or other purposes.”

The policy allows that RSO’s “may solicit in designated areas and under prescribed conditions,” such as registering the event in advance, securing administration approval of outside speakers, and paying a $29 solicitation fee, but unaffiliated organizations like YAL “must be sponsored by a registered student organization, academic unit, or University department” in order to solicit even in those locations.

USC student Ross Abbott, who also serves as president of the school’s College Libertarians group, broke into the conversation to ask, “Is the Bible guy that stands out there and hands out Bibles … is he affiliated with the university?”

“No, he’s in a free speech zone,” McMahon answered.

“So can we do that?” Abbott asked.

“The zones here are very specific,” Dani Repass, secretary for the YAL group, glumly pointed out, prompting Larsen to assert, “I would get rid of the free speech zone.”

“That’s a much bigger conversation than this,” McMahon noted, somewhat warily.

“Well, free speech zones are unconstitutional,” Larsen observed, “so I encourage you [the students] to recruit wherever you want.”

“Where can we find the free speech zone policies?” Abbott asked.

“I’m sure it’s online somewhere,” McMahon said. “I didn’t come prepared to have this conversation; I was prepared to help you become a student group.”

Perhaps understandably, at least from a rhetorical perspective, USC does not have any policies explicitly pertaining to “free speech zones,” though the school’s Outdoor Event Registration policy functionally serves the same purpose.

That policy “designates four routine outdoor areas for use by individuals wishing to sponsor outdoor events on campus,” and stipulates that events held in those areas “must comply with reasonable time, manner, and place restrictions.”

Provided they are conducted through an RSO and receive approval from the administration at least two weeks in advance, the policy allows USC student groups to host events within designated areas in the front and back patios of Russell House University Union and adjacent Davis Field(s), a designated area “within the blocked-off area of Greene Street,” a designated area of Pickens Street Bridge (a pedestrian bridge near the center of campus), and a designated area of the Carolina Coliseum.

An informational pamphlet on university free speech zones put out by the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education (FIRE) notes that in 2012, a federal judge overturned the University of Cincinnati’s free speech zone policy, which was substantively similar to USC’s if somewhat less imposing, requiring advance notice of only 10 days and omitting restrictions on demonstrations by unaffiliated organizations.

FIRE also identified USC specifically as a “red light” offender in its recent Spotlight on Speech Codes report, citing among other infractions the school’s policies on solicitation and use of university facilities.

Harris told Campus Reform that the YAL group initiated the process of gaining recognition immediately after the discussion with McMahon and is now awaiting the university’s formal response, but added that he doesn’t expect the new status to improve the group’s situation substantially.

“In terms of our official status bringing about any real change, I don’t think it does,” he said. “Recognition is a dog-and-pony show; it’s the university’s way to control what happens on campus.”

Harris said recognition will allow the club to request funds—which he claimed “are almost never granted”—and will also entitle YAL to a table at the school’s twice-yearly recruitment fairs, but complained that the group would still “have to request permission any time we want to do things on the campus, even though it’s a public university.”

Spokespersons for USC did not return messages from Campus Reform requesting comment for this story.

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