University of Alabama’s Faculty Senate Seeks to Revoke the First Amendment; The Rights of Free Speech and Petition Are Under Siege

By April 4, 2002

TUSCALOOSA, AL—The Faculty Senate of the University of Alabama (UA) has threatened the First Amendment rights both of free speech and of petitioning the government for the redress of grievances. At this public institution, whose power is constrained by the First Amendment, the Faculty Senate is conducting an investigation of the intellectual and civic activities of the Alabama Scholars Association (ASA), a private group of faculty with no official ties to UA. By this action, the Faculty Senate has engaged in what Harvey A. Silverglate, Esq., co-director of FIRE, has termed "a conspiracy to intimidate others into relinquishing the exercise of their constitutional rights."

In early 2002, members of the ASA, a state affiliate of the 4,300-member National Association of Scholars, called attention to a proposed series of "diversity training" seminars in UA’s College of Engineering. The ASA, after study and consultation, determined that Dean Timothy J. Greene intended to make the training seminars both partisan and mandatory for all faculty and staff. They also determined that this was a pilot program for similar "training" of students. On February 15, 2002, as part of a far-reaching publicity campaign, ASA issued a letter to, among others, Alabama state legislators. That letter stated, "As a citizen of Alabama, you have a right to know how your tax dollars are spent. If you do not want them spent to promote racial division, political indoctrination, and the abuse of children, then we ask that you stand up and be counted."

In response, several state legislators contacted UA President Andrew A. Sorensen to inquire about these "diversity" workshops. In a letter to Alabama State Senator Larry Dixon, dated February 27, 2002, President Sorensen promised that the "seminars for faculty and staff" would be "non-mandatory." The following day, in a signed memorandum to the members of the ASA executive committee, President Sorensen assured the ASA that the seminar "is not mandatory for anyone."

On March 22, Professor of Law Wythe W. Holt, Jr. and Professor of Education Jerry L. Rosiek, in their official capacity as co-chairs of the Faculty Life Committee, informed David T. Beito, professor of history and a member of the ASA, that the Faculty Senate was investigating both the ASA’s communication to members of the faculty informing them that the seminars were not mandatory and the charge that the ASA had "interacted with members of the Legislature to attempt to lessen the legislative appropriation which the University receives." In fact, although the members of the ASA have every right to communicate with their elected officials about the funding of inappropriate activities, they merely had called the government’s attention to the abuses that they observed. In short, the Faculty Senate was investigating both the exercise of protected free speech and the exercise of the protected right to petition the government for redress of grievances.

FIRE’s Harvey Silverglate observed: "While any citizen or group of citizens may debate how others exercise their constitutional rights, a line is crossed when an official governmental body, such as the Faculty Senate of the University of Alabama, enters the realm of investigation, intimidation, and threats of punishment."

For Holt, writing as co-chair of the body that would judge the ASA, the ASA’s challenge to the imposition of partisan sensitivity training on faculty and staff constituted "a perverse and elitist idea of the educated human." Holt concluded that the ASA "seems to believe that brainwashing will work on educated university faculty members, that mandatory training sessions constitute and implement brainwashing, and that only SOME members of the academic community—apparently including all ASA members—are sufficiently strong or intelligent or prepared (or impervious?) to be able to resist this indoctrination."

According to an official history of the Faculty Senate, written by Holt himself, and both approved by the Faculty Senate and posted on its website, the body was created in the 1970s "to join with the administration in the governance of the University in those aspects which concern faculty." UA’s homepage offers a link to the Faculty Senate’s website under "Administration."

Silverglate noted: "At the University of Alabama, it is now potentially punishable to speak and write on core political issues and to inform the public and the government of abuses. During the 1960s, individual faculty members petitioned the government for an end to segregation and for the end of covert research for the Department of Defense. Are Holt and Rosiek going to open retroactive investigations of the exercise of those constitutional rights also?" He added: "The University of Alabama is a public university. The text that sets limits to its powers in this case is the First Amendment to the U.S. Constitution, which applies to each individual state and to all governmental agencies and powers. It prohibits those powers from ‘abridging the freedom of speech…or the right of the people…to petition the Government for a redress of grievances.’ A professor of law and a professor of education ought to be able to understand the meaning of that."

ASA and Diversity Training at UA

The ASA first criticized the College of Engineering’s plans for "diversity training" in early 2002, when it learned of a series of proposed "diversity" workshops that were to feature "Blue Eyed," a video by the notorious "diversity trainer" Jane Elliott. Elliott teaches—among other things—that all whites are racists and that all blacks are their helpless victims. On March 8, 2000, at a Department of Education seminar, Elliott informed federal employees that to vote for George W. Bush was to vote for a racist. (In November 2000, George W. Bush carried the state of Alabama with almost 60% of the vote). In February 2002, ASA members Professor Beito and Professor of Anthropology Charles W. Nuckolls launched a letter-writing campaign to protest the ideologically motivated content of the workshops and to express their concerns that attendance would be compulsory. FIRE joined their efforts by writing directly to Dean Greene to advise that "mandatory workshops espousing a particular orthodoxy on issues of race and ethnicity would violate the moral and, indeed, constitutional obligations of a public university." In his February 27, 2002 letter to State Senator Dixon, President Sorensen wrote, "the Elliott tape will not be a part of the program." He also wrote, in that letter, that no one was required to attend the seminar. The next day, in his memorandum to the ASA, Sorensen assured concerned professors that Dean Greene had agreed that, even after changes were made to its content and format, "the diversity seminar, which the College of Engineering will be sponsoring, is not mandatory for anyone."

On March 13, however, a supervisor in the College of Engineering announced by official email a new series of diversity workshops for staff, led by the dean himself: "It is mandatory that everyone be there." These mandatory workshops began on March 20.

The ASA had good reason to be concerned with official seminars of this sort on race. In 2001, UA offered "diversity training" for faculty led by the Reverend Joseph Barndt, who teaches that all whites, including him, are "racists" who suffer from "false consciousness" about their inherent "racism" and unjust "white privilege." FIRE recognizes that many share the views of Barndt and Jane Elliott, and their voices certainly should be heard on any campus open to free debate. As mandatory "trainers" of free individuals, however, Silverglate noted, "they are an affront to liberty, dignity, and intellect. The Supreme Court has consistently ruled against the imposition of official orthodoxies on our citizens."

Silverglate stated: "The ASA should be commended for their exposure of events at the University of Alabama, and they most certainly will be protected in their constitutional rights from those who currently conspire to deprive them of those liberties."

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

To see the website of the threatened civic group of faculty, click here.

Contact:
Harvey A. Silverglate, FIRE: 617-523-5933; has@thefire.org

Alan Charles Kors, FIRE: 215-717-3473; ack@thefire.org

Andrew A. Sorensen, President, University of Alabama: 205-348-5103; sorensen@pres.ua.edu

Wythe W. Holt, Jr., Professor of Law, Faculty Life Committee Co-Chair, Faculty Senate: 205-348-1123; wholt@law.ua.edu

Jerry L. Rosiek, Professor of Education, Faculty Life Committee Co-Chair, Faculty Senate: 205-348-7598; jrosiek@bamaed.ua.edu

David T. Beito, Professor of History: 205-348-1870; dbeito@history.as.ua.edu

Charles W. Nuckolls, Professor of Anthropology: 205-348-8202; executive@alabamascholars.org