FIRE Coalition Shatters Window Display Censorship Policy at University of Alabama

October 3, 2003

TUSCALOOSA, AL—After months of experimenting with different methods of restricting speech, the administration of the University of Alabama (UA) has “indefinitely” tabled a policy outlawing all window displays in student dormitories. The policy was issued after a student was ordered to remove a confederate flag from the door of his dorm room. Other students, aware of the threat to their liberty posed by this regulation, subsequently displayed American flags to challenge administrators to enforce the ban.

“We are relieved that the University of Alabama has decided, at least for now, to honor its constitutional obligations. We find it remarkable that a university was willing to ban an entire category of expression rather than risk any student being offended,” said Thor L. Halvorssen, CEO of the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education (FIRE). FIRE worked closely with the Alabama Scholars Association, a state affiliate of the National Association of Scholars, in opposing UA’s assault on freedom of expression. “This was not about the confederate flag; it was about our rights as free citizens of a free country. The administration recognized its assault on the Bill of Rights for what it was: a public relations disaster,” said ASA President David Beito, a professor of history at UA.

This instance of UA’s censorship of student expression began in June 2003, when Office of Residential Life Senior Coordinator Kate Etheredge instructed Rush White, professor-in-residence for the Byrd Hall dormitory, to order a student to remove a confederate flag displayed in the hallway of his dormitory. Etheredge cited a draft of a university policy that forbade putting up any displays “in view of the general public” that were “inconsistent with accepted standards or University policies.” The policy also outlawed “harassing or intimidating” visual materials. Professor White refused to enforce this policy because he recognized that it violated the First Amendment of the United States Constitution.

FIRE wrote to UA President Robert E. Witt in July, pointing out that the university’s requirement that window displays meet “accepted standards” was so vague that it would allow administrators to choose what sorts of expression would be allowed based solely on their whims and unfettered discretion. The letter informed Witt that “The only ‘accepted standard’ should be the First Amendment of the United States Constitution.”

Rather than admit their error and commit to their legal and moral duties under the First Amendment, administrators chose to ban all window displays. This galvanized the residents of the Byrd Hall dormitory who defiantly disobeyed the ban by prominently displaying American flags. FIRE publicly supported the students who challenged the ban.

The ASA and its allies organized a vigil for freedom of speech that brought together people from across the political spectrum. Student and faculty participants took a variety of flags, including national flags from across the world, to a meeting of a university committee that was discussing the ban on flags and window displays. Additionally, the Alabama chapter of the American Civil Liberties Union and the League of the South publicly declared their opposition to the policy.

On September 18, Dean of Students Thomas S. Strong informed the university community that the administration had “indefinitely tabled” the ban and that he personally would work to protect free speech on campus.

“We wish that administrators understood that there is no need for any codes that ban speech—even speech that offends—on public university campuses,” said Halvorssen. “The ideal speech code was added to the U.S. Constitution in 1791 in the form of the First Amendment. It is improper to ban only certain points of view, and equally improper to ban all points of view simply to avoid controversy.”

In a telephone conversation with FIRE on October 3, Dean Strong reiterated the comments he had previously made and stated that he is currently working on other initiatives to secure freedom of speech in Alabama. Stay tuned.

The Foundation for Individual Rights in Education is a nonprofit educational foundation. FIRE unites civil rights and civil liberties leaders, scholars, journalists, and public intellectuals across the political and ideological spectrum on behalf of individual rights, freedom of expression, freedom of conscience, and due process on our nation’s campuses. FIRE’s efforts to preserve liberty at the University of Alabama and elsewhere can be seen by visiting www.thefire.org.

CONTACT:

Thor L. Halvorssen, Chief Executive Officer, FIRE: 215-717-3473; thor@thefire.org

Charles W. Nuckolls and David T. Beito, Alabama Scholars Association: 205-345-7378; asa@alabamascholars.org

Thomas S. Strong, Dean of Students, University of Alabama: 205-348-6795; tstrong@sa.ua.edu

Schools: University of Alabama Cases: University of Alabama: Ban on Window Displays