TUSCALOOSA, Alabama – The University of Alabama appears to have no plans to modify its contentious grounds use policy following a public letter admonishing UA’s protection of students’ First Amendment rights and calling for change.
On July 1, the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education (FIRE) posted a letter to their website addressed to UA President Judy Bonner on behalf of an abortion rights student group who say police ordered them to stop distributing flyers on campus during the spring semester.
The letter, originally sent in late May, requested comment from Bonner by mid-June. As of Friday, FIRE has received no response from the University, according to Peter Bonilla, the associate director of FIRE’s Individual Rights Defense Program .
A university spokeswoman did not directly answer a question regarding Bonner’s intent to respond to the public letter. When asked if the university has any plans to modify the policy after a contentious semester, she said the grounds use policy was implemented in response to the size of the student body and therefore an increased demand for the use of campus grounds and facilities, but that the university regularly reviews the policy “to be sure that it continues to meet our needs.”
According to the policy posted online at www.uafacilities.ua.edu, the policy was last revised in August 2010.
Though UA’s grounds use policy was subject for debate following February’s failed Harlem Shake event, when a student organizer was questioned and ticketed by police after amassing a crowd of hundreds to film a viral dance video, FIRE contacted UA students after members of the Alabama Alliance for Sexual and Reproductive Justice were threatened with arrest while passing out flyers on the quad in April.
AASRJ was attempting to counter-protest Bama Students for Life anti-abortion photo display on April 10 when they were approached by police who ordered them to stop.
They attempted to apply for a grounds use permit that day, hoping to resume their activities on April 11, but the University said it would take days to process their request.
The fact that the university is not compelled to return a permit application within any defined time period has been a major sticking point in the debate.
A permit is not coordinated through one specific department and could possibly have to go through red tape with as many as nine separate entities.
Samaria Johnson, president of AASRJ, said the grounds use policy is not only confusing but not well communicated to students required to follow it.
On the UA Facilities page alone, there are two separate Grounds Use applications, a “Grounds Use Permit” form and a Student Events Grounds Use registration form. The second form redirects applicants to the Greek Affairs website, though it’s not clear if it is for all student organization or strictly greek organizations.
There are also two separate documents on the Facilities site containing various rules and regulations which total 14 pages combined: Use of University Space, Facilities and Grounds Policy, and General Terms and Conditions for Grounds Use. There is another separate Grounds Use Policy entry in the Student Handbook.
Even Bama Students for Life, which received a permit and held their protest without incident, took issue with the application process. Following FIRE’s publication, they tweeted support of AASRJ’s First Amendment rights, despite their opposing views:
It took us nearly a MONTH to get Genocide Awareness Project approved. Glad FIRE is standing up for students’ rights http://t.co/F6vZeOwJO6
— Bama Students 4 Life (@Pro_Life_Bama) July 1, 2013
Glad FIRE’s standing up 4 AASRJ’s rights. We always welcome dialogue; UA ordered students 2 desist @TheCrimsonWhite http://t.co/ydxtMmCk9B
— Bama Students 4 Life (@Pro_Life_Bama) July 1, 2013
Though Andreen said the university is able to provide a grounds use permit on “a quick turnaround, when an organization has an urgent need,” AASRJ representatives don’t believe this is the case.
Johnson suspects every grounds use permit is not treated equally.
“I don’t at all doubt that the university’s administration interferes with how grounds-use permits are processed,” she said. “Politics is powerful. The University has a local and national reputation to consider, donors to appease, parents to please — a raging arguments on the quad between two groups with such a major cultural divide, no matter how civil it might be, doesn’t exactly lend the university a brochure-read Kodak moment.”
Though FIRE reached out to the group following the incident, Johnson said the AASRJ is still strongly considering contacting ACLU Alabama following the “permit debacle.”
“The University has a history of ignoring student and organization complaints; any made by AASRJ, being publicly and unabashedly pro-choice, would have been quickly regulated to the trash bin without powerful backing,” she said.
While Bonilla said FIRE will wait out the next few weeks to see how the administration responds to the issue, Johnson was less optimistic that changes will be made.
“…Without extreme pressure and national attention, the university will count on us to conveniently forget, if not forgive,” she said. “No one expects us to turn to the ACLU or the media and speak out, because self-preservation is quite the incentive against an entity like the University of Alabama.”
Bonilla said while grounds use policies are common and constitutional at universities around the country, the strict nature of many infringes on the rights of students
“A pretty common feature in a lot of these policies are the inflexible demands on the students who have to reserve a place a minimum number of days in advance, not allowing a more spontaneous event responding to unfolding news,” Bonilla said. “It doesn’t leave groups a lot of options when they only learned about the event 24 hours beforehand.”
Schools: University of Alabama