By Hayley Degnan
In 2015, Ross Abbott (“Abbott”), a student from the University of South Carolina (“USC”) met with USC’s director of campus life to approve a “Free Speech Event” hosted by two student groups, intending to draw attention to free speech threats across college campuses. After its approval, the event proceeded on November 23, 2015, during which time, Abbott and other students circulated handouts detailing incidents of censorship at USC and on other college campuses, and displayed posters, including a “large red swastika” and the word “wetback.” Directly following the event, the University’s Office of Equal Opportunity Programs (“EOP Office”) received three written complaints, including accusations that students involved in hosting the event made sexist and racist remarks. The next day, Carl Wells (“Wells”), USC’s Assistant Director of the EOP Office, sent Abbott a letter that (1) instructed him to contact the office to appear for a required meeting, (2) stated the University may move to investigate and impose sanctions, and (3) claimed to have a “Notice of Charge” attached, although this notice was later revealed to be a clerical error. Two weeks later, Wells had the mandated meeting with Abbott to discuss the complaints; he explained that this meeting was standard practice under USC’s “Student Non-Discrimination and Non-Harassment Policy” following the receipt of student complaints, and he offered Abbott the opportunity to explain Abbott’s own understanding of what transpired at the event. On December 23, 2015, two weeks after their meeting, Wells informed Abbot that the University found no cause for further investigation or sanction.
In February 2016, Abbott and the two student groups involved in hosting the “Free Speech Event” (“Plaintiffs”), filed suit against multiple USC officials, alleging violations of their First Amendment rights. Plaintiffs made two claims: (1) that the University’s investigation procedures in connection with the discrimination and harassment complaints impermissibly chilled their free expression under the First Amendment, and (2) the University’s harassment policy on its face violated the First Amendment because it was overly broad and exceedingly vague. Both parties moved for summary judgment on the first claim, and the district court granted summary judgment to the members of the university (“Defendants”). The district court also found in favor of the Defendants on the second claim, without reaching the merits due to the Plaintiffs’ lack of standing.
The first issue considered by the district court involved whether the Plaintiffs’ speech had been so restricted as to constitute a First Amendment injury when Defendants required Abbott to attend a meeting in conjunction with the University’s “Student Non-Discrimination and Non-Harassment Policy.” The court held that the Plaintiffs’ had suffered such an injury in the form of a “chilling effect” on their speech because the Plaintiffs could have reasonably feared discipline and self-censored otherwise protected speech during the investigation process. However, the court ultimately held that the temporary chill on plaintiffs’ First Amendment speech, while present, was constitutional given USC’s narrowly drawn investigation practices under the “Student Non-Discrimination and Non-Harassment Policy” to achieve its compelling end of upholding the rights of its students to be free from illegal discrimination and harassment.
The second issue considered by the district court was whether Plaintiffs had standing to bring a facial challenge and seek injunctive relief against Defendants’ policy. The court held that plaintiffs lacked the standing necessary to seek an injunction because they could not point to a non-speculative claim of future injury. The Fourth Circuit Court of Appeals addressed both issues on appeal, first determining whether the district court erred in granting Defendants’ summary judgment motion on the as-applied First Amendment challenge, considering both (1) whether a First Amendment harm befell the plaintiffs, and (2) whether the Defendants’ “Student Non-Discrimination and Non-Harassment Policy” and related investigation practices survived under strict scrutiny review.
The Plaintiffs advanced two major arguments in support of their claim that the University’s “Student Non-Discrimination and Non-Harassment Policy” violated their First Amendment rights by requiring Abbott to participate in a meeting with Wells. First, they asserted that the investigation practices of the University used in accordance with the policy “chilled” their ability to exercise protected speech. In support, they explained that the inquiry process, which the University undertook to abide by its own policy, caused them to “reasonably fear” disciplinary action if they chose to sponsor other events. Thus, they decided to cancel an annual Marijuana Legalization Rally, avoided putting on any additional events, and generally shied away from engaging in student discourse, which was a major part of their operations on campus. Furthermore, plaintiffs suggested that the “Notice of Charge” referenced in the letter and the mandate of a meeting, which came from an authoritative figure at the University would reasonably make any college student of “ordinary firmness” self-censor his or her expression out of fear. Additionally, the Plaintiffs relied on Fourth Circuit authority to relay this “ordinary firmness” standard for self-censorship impeding on First Amendment rights. Plaintiffs also suggested that this chilling effect extended from the date Wells sent Abbott the letter to the date when the action was filed, which is when Plaintiffs contended they first felt comfortable reengaging in their full First Amendment rights.
In addition, Plaintiffs argued that the investigative practices used by the Defendants in conjunction with the “Student Non-Discrimination and Non-Harassment Policy” violated their First Amendment rights because the process was not the least restrictive means to meet the University’s goal of protecting student rights. Plaintiffs did not dispute that the University has a compelling interest in ensuring students are free from illegal discrimination and harassment at school; yet, they contested the University’s means of carrying out that end via their investigation under the “Student Non-Discrimination and Non-Harassment Policy.” They argued that the University’s inquiry process was neither “necessary nor narrowly drawn” because the University was able to handle the student complaints without involving the Plaintiffs. To further this argument, Plaintiffs stressed that Defendants should have “weeded out” any insubstantial or frivolous complaints before resorting to the inquiry process. Additionally, Plaintiffs contended that even if the Defendants rightfully resorted to investigating following some sort of screening, the defendants commenced the incorrect form of inquiry; they should have spoken to the complaining students or witnesses of the accused discriminatory or harassing behavior first. Then, following this independent investigation, the Defendants could have contacted Abbott and determined how to proceed.
In general, Defendants argued that they did not violate the First Amendment as a matter of law and that qualified immunity protected them from damages liability for any claimed harm by the Plaintiffs. To further this argument, Defendants pointed out that they did not choose to take any action against the Plaintiffs in relationship to the “Free Speech Event” or ask them to refrain from exercising their full First Amendment rights during the time between the event and the letter from Wells or the letter and the meeting with Wells to lead them to self-censor. Furthermore, the Defendants noted that even after the meeting between Wells and Abbot that occurred as a result of its “Student Non-Discrimination and Non-Harassment Policy, the University did not impose any sanctions or restrictions on the Plaintiffs that may have harmed their abilities to express their First Amendment rights in this context. As a more direct response to the Plaintiffs’ arguments about experiencing a “chilling” effect as a result of the letter from Wells, the Defendants argued that the Plaintiffs failed to establish that they actually experienced any such “chilling” or harm. None of the Plaintiffs identified any specific events they wished to sponsor and refrained from sponsoring during the time in question.
In response to the second argument, the Defendants alleged that their inquiry procedure under the “Student Non-Discrimination and Non-Harassment Policy” survived at strict scrutiny. First, the Defendants argued that it was necessary to investigate these complaints as non-frivolous because although the event was approved, USC’s director of Campus life who approved the event, was not physically present at the time the event took place. Thus, she could not see the context within which it occurred and could not know that it was being carried out in the manner or for the purposes that the Plaintiffs articulated. Second, it is not clear that meeting with Abbott was a more “restrictive” form of inquiring about the nature of what transpired, and in fact, giving individuals the opportunity to present their positions is often beneficial to them.
The Fourth Circuit Court of Appeals ultimately affirmed the district court’s ruling on both claims. To begin its discussion of the first issue embedded in the Plaintiffs’ as-applied challenge, the court recognized the Defendants’ qualified immunity unless Plaintiffs could show both “(a) the violation of a constitutional right, and (b) that the right was “clearly established” at the time of the First Amendment violation.” The court first considered whether plaintiffs’ contention that their speech was chilled amounted to a harm under the First Amendment that would entitle them to damages. Although noting some of the irony and novelty associated with the specifics of this case, the court recognized a precedential case in this area of First Amendment claims where it was previously willing to find the Plaintiff entitled to damages for a past chilling of his rights. The court found that the standard articulated in that case and by the district court below was that a chilling of speech is only recognizable as a First Amendment harm “if it is objectively reasonable.” In defining “objectively reasonable,” the court held that the action which purportedly caused the chilling must be “likely to deter a person of ordinary firmness from the exercise of the First Amendment.” The court agreed with the Plaintiffs’ argument on this point, holding, “we do not doubt that a college student reasonably might be alarmed and thus deterred by an official letter from a University authority referring to an attached ‘Notice of Charge.’”
However, the Court rejected the Plaintiffs’ proposed timeline for when this chilling effect took place, which Plaintiffs argued extended from the time Abbott received the letter to the time of this action. It found that following the meeting between Wells and Abbott, Defendants explained that it would not take further action against the Plaintiffs, thus no student of ordinary firmness would continue to self-censor. In fact, the court suggested that had the University taken the opposite approach following the meeting between Wells and Abbott, the students may have continued to be deterred from exercising their rights and had a stronger claim. Following this point, the court recognized that the “more difficult question” involved in the case at hand is whether the Plaintiffs experienced such a chilling during the time between the letter announcing the potential for a full investigation and the meeting.
While the court expressed that it was willing to recognize that a student of ordinary firmness may have been chilled during this more difficult timeframe to distinguish, it suggested in order for the Plaintiff to recover damages for such a chilling “it is not enough to establish that a person could have engaged in self-censorship as a result of the University Defendants’ actions.” Here, the Court appeared to find the Defendants’ argument that the Plaintiffs could not articulate a specific intended expression that was chilled as a result of this incident compelling. Further, based on the Plaintiffs’ testimony, this time period appeared to overlap with the Thanksgiving holiday, final exam period, and start of winter vacation, suggesting that no such self-censorship kept them from activities on campus. Thus, in relation to this first issue, the Court held that the University’s inquiry into the complaints under “Student Non-Discrimination and Non-Harassment Policy” did not actually amount to a “cognizable restriction on Plaintiffs’ speech.”
Despite finding for the Defendant on this issue, which defeated the Plaintiffs’ First Amendment claims, the court went on to consider whether any restriction on the Plaintiffs’ free speech survived under the strict scrutiny standard of review. Here, the court recognized that had the University’s procedure lead to actual self-censorship, Plaintiffs would have had to show that the investigation practice under the “Student Non-Discrimination and Non-Harassment Policy” was “necessary to serve a compelling state interest and . . . narrowly drawn to achieve that end.” Since both parties had conceded that upholding a school environment that is free from illegal discrimination and harassment is a compelling end, the only part of the issue left to consider was whether the procedure was narrowly tailored to meet that end. Ultimately, the court found that the investigative process under “Student Non-Discrimination and Non-Harassment Policy” was so tailored.
The court rejected the Plaintiffs’ argument that the University should have screened these discrimination and harassment complaints as frivolous matters because there was allegedly harassing behavior and speech that occurred at the event, which a University cannot dismiss. Furthermore, by contacting Abbott and not resorting to meeting with the complainants or other witnesses first, the court reasoned that the University not only afforded Abbott with greater due process, but also created a standard procedure under its “Student Non-Discrimination and Non-Harassment Policy,” which it could enact with ease and efficiency. Therefore, the court agreed with the district court’s finding that the investigative process adopted by the University represented a “minimally invasive” narrowly tailored to the compelling end of prohibiting discrimination and harassment.
The Court also affirmed the district court’s ruling on the second claim on appeal, rejecting the Plaintiffs’ facial challenge to the “Student Non-Discrimination and Non-Harassment Policy” and request for injunctive relief based on their lack of standing.
Although admittedly an “unusual First Amendment claim,” this case addresses the issue of free speech on college campuses, which as Plaintiffs’ “Free Speech Event” highlighted is a pertinent issue in today’s society. While the Fourth Circuit appeared willing to recognize students’ claims that a chilling or self-censoring of First Amendment protected speech may amount to an actionable harm, it ultimately found that the Plaintiffs failed to establish such a chilling actually occurred in this case. Yet, by focusing much of the opinion on the Plaintiffs’ arguments on this issue and citing to Fourth Circuit precedent on the matter, it leaves open the opportunity to address the “chilling” effect University policies have on free speech again. Thus, despite its ultimate holding for the Defendants in this case, the Fourth Circuit presented some willingness to recognize First Amendment protections against campus policies, perhaps to a different result when not within the peculiarities of a case of this sort.
 Abbott v. Pastides, No. 17-1853, 2018 WL 3910682 at *1, *6 (4th Cir. Aug. 16, 2018).
 Id. at *7.
 Id. at *7–*8.
 Id. at *9.
 Id. at *10.
 Id. at *11.
 Id. at *12.
 Id. at *12–*13.
 Id. at *14.
 Id. at *17.
 See Cooksey v. Futrell, 721 F.3d 226, 236 (holding that a state regulatory board chilled plaintiff’s speech by taking actions that would reasonably deter or self-censor an individual from exercising his or her First Amendment rights fully).
 Abbott, 2018 WL 3910682, at *21.
 Id. at *22.
 Id. at *23.
 Id. at *10.
 Id. at *16–*17.
 Id. at *19.
 Id. at *21–*22.
 Id. at *23.
 Id. at *13.
 Id. at *14.
 See Reyes v. City of Lynchburg, 300 F.3d 449, 455 (holding that a plaintiff may be entitled to damages under a First Amendment claim for a period, during the past where the plaintiff has alleged his rights were chilled).
 Abbott, 2018 WL 3910682, at *15.
 Id. (quoting Benham v. City of Charlotte, 635 F.3d 129, 135 (4th Cir. 2011)).
 Id. at *18.
 Id. at *17–*18.
 Id. at *18.
 Id. at *19; see also Reyes, 300 F.3d at 455 n. 8 (holding that because the plaintiff could not show he was deterred from a specific expression, he was not entitled to damages for a First Amendment claim based on a past chilling effect).
 Id. at *21 (citing Sigma Chi Fraternity v. George Mason University, 993 F.2d 386, 393 (E.D. Va. 2008)).
 Id. at *20; see e.g. Arkansas Writers’ Project, Inc. v. Ragland, 481 U.S. 221, 231 (holding that strict scrutiny applies to content-based speech regulated under the First Amendment).
 Id. at *24.
 Id. at *22 (citing S.B. ex rel. A.L. v. Bd. of Educ. of Harford Cty., 819 F.3d 69, 76–77 (4th Cir. 2016)) (holding that a school may be found liable for a decision to not address student-on-student harassment).
 Id. at *24.
 Id. at *34.
 Id. at *14.