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Student Journalists Call on U. of Alabama to Restore Free Speech to Campus

In a number of recent articles, the University of Alabama’s (UA’s) student newspaper, The Crimson White, has covered the university’s shortcomings in upholding students’ freedom of speech. Examining recent campus history as well as UA’s current written policies on student expression, the writers of The Crimson White have, together, put forth a strong argument that the university needs to do much better in order to meet its legal and moral obligations, as a public institution of higher education, under the First Amendment.

The Crimson White began its coverage by noting that FIRE gives UA an overall “red light” rating for its speech codes, due specifically to the university’s residence hall “Community Living Standards.” This speech code prohibits, in relevant part, “inflammatory language, including, but not limited to, online/electronic, telephone, verbal, non-verbal, or written communications with the intent to harm or incite.” Not only does this vague and broad policy fail to define at all what constitutes “inflammatory” speech at UA, as the same Crimson White article points out, UA also maintains an additional six “yellow light” speech codes and has only one “green light” policy.

In light of this poor record, the student newspaper’s editorial board published a stirring editorial calling on the university to reform its speech codes. The editorial board wrote:

[The Housing and Residential Communities department] needs to make a clear distinction between illegal speech like threats of physical violence and protected speech like inflammatory language that does not entail the intent to harm or incite violence. Substantial changes to the HRC policy and Student Code of Conduct removing portions that prohibit protected speech and clarifying speech that has been found illegal will bolster productive discussion on campus while encouraging students to engage in a true, unrestrained exchange of ideas. How these policies are applied is irrelevant; their mere existence represents an attempt to chill free speech on campus.

This is absolutely correct. It does not matter, from FIRE’s perspective or from that of a student being regulated under this policy, whether the university actually intends to censor or punish any student expression that it deems to be “inflammatory.” The problem is that UA has reserved for itself the power to take action against any speech that might fall under this vague, amorphous term, thus endangering a wide range of constitutionally protected discourse.

The Crimson White editorial board has accurately conveyed the chilling effect engendered by speech codes like this one. This is why a free student press is vital on college campuses. By opposing speech codes at UA, The Crimson White is defending the basic First Amendment rights of fellow students. Like The Flat Hat at The College of William & Mary and other student newspapers we highlighted last week during FIRE’s Free Press Week, this provides an invaluable service as far as students’ rights are concerned.

The Crimson White’s coverage did not end there. In an insightful column, student Mark Hammontree discussed the First Amendment issues with UA’s equally problematic “Grounds Use” policy:

Unfortunately here at the University students do not have the ability to fully exercise that right to make their voices heard publicly. In order to hold any sort of protest or assembly on campus grounds, students must first apply for a grounds use permit. Although the administration has “revised” the policy at times over the last few years, the process for securing a permit is time consuming and restrictive.

Torch readers may recall that this policy was central to FIRE’s 2013 case at UA involving the pro-choice student group Alabama Alliance for Sexual and Reproductive Justice (AASRJ). Campus police ordered AASRJ to stop distributing informational flyers in response to another group’s pro-life event because it had not applied for the necessary grounds use permit from the university. As we pointed out repeatedly to UA, this impermissibly restricted the expressive rights of a group that had only learned about the pro-life event the day before, did not have time to apply for and receive a permit under the terms of the policy, and sought only to engage in peaceful counter-protest without interfering with the other group’s activity.

Writing for The Crimson White, student Elizabeth Elkin documents this and other instances in which the university has enforced its Grounds Use policy to cut off campus dialogue and expressive activity. It is truly lamentable that this policy remains in place despite the clear lessons of the AASRJ case, and we hope that UA finally takes this opportunity to eliminate the policy’s restrictions.

For more coverage from The Crimson White on free speech issues, you can read additional articles by students TJ Parks and Margaret Wilbourne. And be sure to check out the guest article by my colleague Catherine Sevcenko, FIRE’s Associate Director of Litigation, discussing how students at UA can fight back against unconstitutional speech codes and repressive university tactics.

As always, FIRE is ready and available to work with the University of Alabama on revising its speech codes. We hope the university will act quickly and decisively to improve its free speech record.

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