TUSCALOOSA, Ala., November 11, 2004—Freedom of expression is once again under assault at the University of Alabama (UA). In September, the UA Faculty Senate responded to public controversy about a UA comedy event by passing a resolution that threatens to severely restrict free expression on this public campus. The Senate’s proposed policy would regulate speech in approved university activities and contractually restrict outside speakers whose speech might be deemed to be “demeaning.” Yesterday, the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education (FIRE) submitted an open letter protesting this policy to hundreds of members of the UA community.
“UA students and faculty members need to be aware of how these recommended restrictions on free speech will affect them,” stated David French, president of FIRE. “It is particularly distressing that these free speech restrictions are endorsed by the Faculty Senate—a group that should defend academic freedom and free inquiry.”
The Faculty Senate resolution was prompted by a September 3, 2004, incident between an outside comedian and a UA student at an event sponsored by University Programs. On September 21, UA’s Faculty Senate passed the resolution, which recommended that UA officials “develop clear policies restricting any behavior which demeans or reduces an individual based on group affiliation or personal characteristics, or which promotes hate or discrimination, in any approved University program or activity, and that these policies be incorporated into any contract entered into by the University regarding participation in formal University programs.”
“It is essential that students and faculty members approach with skepticism any proposal to control speech on the basis of its content,” said Greg Lukianoff, FIRE’s director of legal and public advocacy. “The overbroad policy proposed in this resolution would put an arbitrary and nearly unfettered power to censor in the hands of UA administrators, who would be the final judges of what speech might ‘promote hate or discrimination.’”
UA has a dismal record of supporting free speech. Earlier this year, UA ordered the Alabama Scholars Association (ASA), which is often critical of the administration, to pay a rate eight times higher than that paid by other faculty organizations for use of the university’s mail system. In 2003, UA attempted to ban all window displays—even American flags—from dorm windows, but “indefinitely tabled” the ban following pressure from FIRE, 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 after the ASA wrote 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 that investigation after FIRE brought UA’s actions into the light of public scrutiny.
FIRE’s open letter to hundreds of faculty members, administrators, and student leaders urges them to reject censorship, pointing out that “[c]ensorship of speech that advocates bigotry, hatred, or intolerance profoundly insults the intelligence of students by assuming that upon hearing such ideas, students will flock to support them. A university with such a low opinion of its students—who are, after all, adults—cannot hope to offer them a true liberal arts education.”
“We are confident that once the members of the UA community realize the ramifications of this policy, they will reject it,” said FIRE’s French. “Students and faculty members who don’t wish to see their freedoms curtailed should write or call UA President Robert Witt and urge him to reject the Faculty Senate’s recommendation for more censorship,” he concluded.
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. FIRE’s efforts to preserve liberty at UA and on campuses across America can be viewed at thefire.org.
David French, President, FIRE: 215-717-3473; firstname.lastname@example.org
Greg Lukianoff, Director of Legal and Public Advocacy, FIRE: 215-717-3473; email@example.com
Robert Witt, President, University of Alabama: 205-348-5100; firstname.lastname@example.org
John Mason, Faculty Senate President, University of Alabama; 205-348-2904; email@example.com