University of Alabama in Huntsville Dismisses Charges against Students for Criticizing University

By January 31, 2008

Following pressure from FIRE, The University of Alabama in Huntsville (UAH) dismissed charges against two students for their work in passing a Student Government Association (SGA) resolution critical of UAH’s computer network and services.

In April 2007, Donald Ganiere authored and presented a resolution to the SGA calling for an independent audit of UAH’s Department of Computer and Networking Services (CNS) and for a temporary campus-wide committee to work toward improving CNS. The resolution proclaimed that "the overall state of the University campus network is deplorable for a university of our size and stature" and that "the voice of the student body respecting this issue has been principally disregarded for the last several years." The SGA unanimously passed the resolution on April 16 and slightly amended it in the fall, and SGA members signed it in late September and October.

On November 8, CNS Director Donald Halverstadt filed a complaint against Ganiere and SGA President Samuel Parks reading:

Mr. Parks and Mr. Ganiere with forethought purposeful led the SGA to pass Resolution AR.06-07.02 on October 18, 2007 without reading and knowing that the statements made in it were untrue.

In his complaint, Halverstadt charged Ganiere and Parks with injurious conduct, assisting misconduct, false information, and disruption of university activity. On November 12, 2007, UAH launched an investigation of Ganiere and Parks, and Parks reported that Professor Lior Burko, as Preliminary Action Officer, asked him to write a letter of apology admitting Parks’s supposed "misconduct."

So, today, we get to talk about an often overlooked right listed in the First Amendmentthe right to petition for the redress of grievances. Not only did UAH officials try to shut down what was unquestionably protected expression coming from these students, it also failed to notice what Ganiere’s resolution was attempting to accomplish. Ganiere did what Americans have been doing for centuries now; he called on UAH to change its actions and asked for improvements on campus. As we stated in our December 5 letter to UAH President David B. Williams:

Not only is [the right to petition for redress of grievances] so important that it is included in the First Amendment along with freedom of speech and religious liberty, but the lack of this right directly contributed to the American Revolution itself. The ability to ask the government to change its behavior or policies without fear of punishment is one of the crucial distinctions between a free and an unfree society.

We also pointed out to Williams that if this resolutiona reasonable, unanimously adopted action brought before the SGA Senateis beyond what UAH considers allowable speech, then surely no student critique or commentary on the state of affairs on campus would be safe.

FIRE called on Williams to immediately stop the investigation of Ganiere and Parks for engaging in constitutionally protected actions. In response, we received a letter from University Counsel Robert W. Rieder stating that all charges were dismissed after the university proceeded through "the normal operation of the disciplinary process."

That’s fine and dandy until students stop speaking out or calling for action on campus because they are afraid they will be subjected to an investigation as part of UAH’s "normal" disciplinary process. By not immediately throwing out the charges and halting the investigation of these two students, UAH has shown us a textbook example of producing a chilling effect on dissent, and UAH risks cultivating citizens who are disinclined to speak out against their school or their country for fear of reprisal or of having to endure the ordeal of an investigation.