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University Didn't Violate Students' Free Speech

By William Vogeler, Esq. on August 22, 2018 | Last updated on March 21, 2019

College students often rally around the First Amendment, but sometimes lack the knowledge to go with it.

Ross Abbott, for example, helped organize a "Free Speech Event" at his university. It stirred controversy because some students were offended by a swastika display, a "wetback" poster, and other allegedly racist statements at the event.

In Abbott v. Pastides, the young organizer and others sued the university for violating their First Amendment rights. An appeals court said they lacked standing, not to mention they got to say everything they had planned.

Student Complaints

The lawsuit was a stretch from the beginning. Abbott claimed officials at the University of South Carolina violated his rights when they asked him about the student complaints.

Nothing came of it, except the lawsuit. Abbott and other event sponsors sued, and a trial judge threw out their case.

On appeal, the plaintiffs argued the university's policy on harassment was also unconstitutional. Writing for the U.S. Fourth Circuit Court of Appeals, Judge Margaret Seymour gave them a lesson in summary judgment and standing.

She said the university "neither prevented the plaintiffs from holding their Free Speech Event nor sanctioned them after the fact." Not only that, she said, the university promptly resolved complaints about the event.

Lacked Standing

The lawsuit fell flat because the plaintiffs couldn't show anything actually happened to them. They held their rally, and the harassment policy wasn't part of it.

"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," the appeals panel said.

Brett Harris, a student organizer with Young Americans for Liberty at the university, said it was the wrong decision. "The point of the protest was to do things and have things on display to provoke a reaction," he told Courthouse News.

Of course, the students did get a reaction. Case dismissed.

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