University of Alabama Continues Campaign Against Free Speech

By on May 13, 2004

TUSCALOOSA, Ala., May 13, 2004—Last year, the University of Alabama (UA)
gained notoriety when it banned students from displaying the American flag (and
all other flags) in their dorm windows. Now it has ordered a faculty group that
is critical of the university’s grading policies to pay a rate eight times higher
than that paid by other faculty organizations for use of the university’s mail
system. The Foundation for Individual Rights in Education (FIRE) and the Princeton,
N.J.-based National Association of Scholars (NAS) are protesting UA’s actions,
which are only the latest in a long, sad string of assaults on free speech and
expression.

“UA’s message is clear,” said Greg Lukianoff, FIRE’s director of
legal and public advocacy. “Criticism of UA President Robert E. Witt and
his administration will not be tolerated and will be met by repression and censorship.
First, UA sought to ban all dorm window displays—including the American
flag. Now, it goes after the ability of its critics to communicate with the
world. It’s both sad and outrageous.”

In the August 2003 edition of its newsletter, The Alabama Observer,
the Alabama Scholars Association (ASA) presented evidence of what it saw as
grade inflation at UA. After the ASA mailed that issue of the newsletter, the
administration informed the ASA that it would no longer be allowed to send mail
using the discount rate enjoyed by other faculty organizations, thus making
it prohibitively expensive for the ASA to distribute its newsletter. In October
2003, UA also delayed a fair-priced mailing of an ASA flier announcing a campus
speech it was sponsoring until the very day of the speech, when such a mailing
could have no effect at all.

Various UA administrators, including Provost Judy Bonner, offered shifting
excuses throughout the next few months for why they would not allow the ASA
to take advantage of the mail discount, including the false assertion that the
UA chapter of the ASA was not actually based at the University of Alabama and
the bizarre claim that the ASA was not a “recognized” faculty organization,
despite the absence of rules for formal recognition of faculty organizations.

When the ASA pointed out that Alabama Academe, the newsletter of the
state conference of the American Association of University Professors (AAUP)—published
in Auburn, not at UA—long had been distributed at the lower rate, UA responded
by raising the Academe‘s rates as well. Professor Charles Nuckolls,
a member of the ASA, noted, “The administration was so desperate to silence
us that they chose to stop the mailing of a completely different newsletter
that had gone out for years just to prevent people from being exposed to our
ideas.”

Last year, UA’s attempt to ban all dorm window displays as potentially offensive
was “indefinitely tabled” following pressure from FIRE and the ASA,
as well as from UA students who defiantly hung American flags in their windows
to protest the ban. UA also attacked free expression in 2002, when its Faculty
Senate launched an investigation into the ASA after the organization wrote to
interested citizens and to members of the Alabama Legislature to protest a mandatory
diversity training program for faculty that the ASA saw as Orwellian “thought
reform.” The Faculty Senate dropped its investigation after FIRE brought
UA’s actions into the light of public scrutiny.

In February, FIRE wrote to UA President Robert Witt, calling on him to reverse
the university’s decision and to honor his duty to ensure that UA “serves
as a vibrant ‘marketplace of ideas,’ not as a sterile echo chamber for ‘approved’
viewpoints only.” The National Association of Scholars also asked President
Witt to uphold his legal obligations. Witt has yet to address either organization’s
serious concerns.

FIRE’s Lukianoff concluded, “FIRE and the NAS are confident that public
exposure of UA’s latest effort to silence speech will convince the university
to let the marketplace of ideas flourish in Alabama.”

The National Association of Scholars (NAS) is an organization of professors,
graduate students, college administrators and trustees, and independent scholars
committed to rational discourse as the foundation of academic life in a free
and democratic society. You can learn more about NAS at www.nas.org.

FIRE is a nonprofit educational foundation that unites civil rights and civil
liberties leaders, scholars, journalists, and public intellectuals from across
the political and ideological spectrum on behalf of individual rights, due process,
freedom of expression, academic freedom, and rights of conscience at our nation’s
colleges and universities. Please visit www.thefire.org
to read more about FIRE’s efforts to preserve liberty at UA and on campuses
across America.

CONTACT:
Greg Lukianoff, Director of Legal and Public Advocacy, FIRE: 215-717-3473; greg@thefire.org
Robert E. Witt, President, University of Alabama: 205-348-5103; witt@pres.ua.edu

Judy Bonner, Provost, University of Alabama: 205-348-4892; judy.bonner@ua.edu
Charles W. Nuckolls and David T. Beito, ASA: 205-345-7378; asa@alabamascholars.org
Stephen H. Balch, President, National Association of Scholars: 609-683-7878;
balch@nas.org