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FIRE’s Catherine Sevcenko Warns About U. of Alabama’s Vague, Overbroad Speech Codes

The University of Alabama (UA) earns a “red light” rating in FIRE’s Spotlight database for prohibiting, among other things, “all forms of ... discriminatory or inflammatory language, including, but not limited to, online/electronic, telephone, verbal, non‐verbal, or written communications with the intent to harm or incite.” FIRE Associate Director of Litigation Catherine Sevcenko argues in an op-ed for the UA student newspaper The Crimson White that this vague and overbroad policy could easily be used to punish a wide range of constitutionally protected speech.

Historically, as Catherine points out, limits on speech have been used to silence unpopular views or unpopular classes of people. For example, “[i]n 1956, University officials suspended its first black student, Autherine Lucy, ‘for her own safety’ due to mob violence and then expelled her when she sued for readmission because the suit ‘slandered’ the University.”

And UA’s current policies allow for applications that are just as ludicrous. Catherine writes:

[S]ome of the University’s residence hall policy doesn’t even make sense. What do administrators mean by a “non-verbal ... communication” that is intended to “harm”? The evil eye? Telepathy? It’s easy to mock this kind of nonsensical language, but the underlying problem is serious: Administrators can use this overly broad and vague policy to punish speech they simply don’t like. Any speech that provokes someone else to think, react and engage in a heated discussion is in some sense “inflammatory.” It’s also a fundamental part of any decent education.

The good news, though, is that students who are facing disciplinary charges or censorship under this kind of speech code simply for expressing themselves can fight back, and FIRE is happy to help. You can submit a case on our website or email to find out what strategy will be most effective for defending free speech rights on your campus—whether it’s working with university administrators, bringing public attention to a free speech issue, or filing a federal lawsuit. For its own sake and for the benefit of the campus community, UA should revise its speech-restrictive policies now before students have to resort to other measures.

Read the rest of Catherine’s piece in The Crimson White.

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