Using Freedom of Speech to Embrace the Inclusive Spirit

Message to the USC Community

From: Michael W. Quick, Provost and Senior Vice President for Academic Affairs

September 14, 2018

As provost of the University of Southern California, I have the great privilege of leading one of the most diverse communities in the world. Every day, I am reminded that our university is a powerful location for engagement and reconciliation, and for promoting our core values of equity, opportunity, and inclusion. These are the values that are enshrined in our Principles of Community and Code of Ethics, and established through our Student Code of Conduct – values that offer all of us an aspirational blueprint for the kind of university we would like to be. When we fall short of these values, the effect can be harmful to our community.

This week, allegations about a USC graduate student emerged online that are deeply disturbing, and I want everyone to know that we are taking these accusations extremely seriously. We never tolerate acts of bias and discrimination, or conduct that is threatening or intimidating to our community. In this particular case, the USC Department of Public Safety and USC’s Chief Threat Assessment Officer, in consultation with local and federal law enforcement agencies, are working diligently to ensure the safety and security of our university community. I strongly encourage anyone who has witnessed or experienced any incident of bias or hate on our campus to report it to our Bias Assessment Response & Support team so that we can appropriately investigate and respond.

Even though we are a secular university, there is something sacred on our campus, and that is the First Amendment to the United States Constitution, especially in regard to free speech. In so many ways, the entire enterprise of our university is predicated on the free exchange of ideas, arguments, theories, and beliefs, and we are all the beneficiaries of an academic culture that interprets free speech in an expansive and comprehensive manner.

However, the same principles of free speech that empower us to teach, research, publish, create, and advocate, also permit us to engage in speech that may be offensive to the vast majority of our community. Hate speech is constitutionally protected speech, and as a university we cannot punish students for exercising their constitutional right to free speech.

Herein lies the challenge for us as a university. How do we properly balance free speech and public safety? How do we promote diversity and inclusion without punishing hate speech? How do we distinguish hate speech from a hate crime, which is punishable by law? Across American higher education, universities are wrestling with these issues as they implicate a full spectrum of academic freedom concerns, from classroom dynamics to social media postings to controversial speakers on campus.  I know there aren’t easy or uniform answers to these questions, but I do know that we will be better as a community by engaging in thoughtful conversation and constructive dialogue.  We are reaching out to the leadership of the Academic Senate, Staff Assembly, Undergraduate Student Government, and Graduate Student Government, so that we can create avenues for such conversations to occur.

I believe that the best answer to hate speech is more speech, not less. I strongly believe that we are defined as a university, not by an outlier voice of exclusion, but by the many voices of inclusion that respond. Indeed, whenever we have an incident of bias, discrimination, or hate on campus, thousands of voices in our community speak out against it, and speak out for the values of diversity, equity, and inclusion that make us a global Trojan Family. Ultimately, through our speech we will collectively drown out the voices of hate on our campus and in our world, and by doing so, we will move closer to becoming the university that we want to be.

I recognize that hate speech has real consequences and often results in pain, anxiety, despair, and stress on campus. I encourage members of our community who may be struggling in the wake of these recent allegations to avail themselves of our confidential counseling and pastoral resources on campus.

As provost, I have challenged our university to try to solve the “wicked problems” of our day – enduring, complex human problems that require creative, interdisciplinary solutions. Bias and discrimination are “wicked problems” that negatively impact us as a diverse community of scholars, artists, and athletes. But free speech also empowers us as a university to be an extraordinary incubator that translates our research into action and policy, so that we can proactively be part of a solution to the many crises we face today. I am so very grateful for the extraordinary privilege of working with all of you in order to ensure that we continue to be the great private university serving the public good.

Cc: Wanda Austin
Academic Senate
Academic Deans
President’s Cabinet
Provost’s Cabinet