The University of Alabama (UA) has yet to yield to the strong and justified pressure from students and free speech advocates to revise its grounds use policies, which require 10 days’ notice for even quiet and peaceful speech by student groups on campus. With the UA administration seemingly alone in defending the policies, it’s useful to take a look at the school’s stated reasons for hanging on to them. The Crimson White covered the controversy on Wednesday, and relayed comments from Cathy Andreen, AU’s director of the Office of Media Relations: “The grounds use permit process ensures that events, speeches, demonstrations, etc., held on our campus do not endanger the safety of our students and the campus community and do not disrupt the University’s ability to educate our students and conduct our daily operations,” Andreen said. But as FIRE’s Peter Bonilla pointed out in recent article for PolicyMic, the UA students threatened with arrest weren’t trying to stage the next Live Aid concert on the quad. Quite to the contrary, members of the Alabama Alliance for Sexual and Reproductive Justice (AASRJ) student group were handing out leaflets in an effort to engage with Bama Students for Life, who in fact welcomed AASRJ’s contribution to an ongoing debate. So it seems—at least to everybody but the UA administration—that this scenario would pose no threat to safety, and would not even create a nuisance or monopolize the quad. Still, Andreen attempted to clarify the broad requirement that student groups obtain a permit in advance of their expressive activities: “It is appropriate for groups to apply for a grounds-use permit any time they are going to use university grounds or facilities,” Andreen said. This is not entirely consistent with the student policy handbook, which states that students must apply for a permit for activities “other than ... casual recreational or social activities.” But it is not at all clear what constitutes a “casual” activity and what constitutes an event that necessitates 10 days’ notice and a permit. And wherever the line between the two is drawn, handing out flyers as part of an ongoing discussion of current events should not require the school’s permission. With the Associated Press now reporting on the situation, pressure on the university is bound to increase. FIRE hopes and expects that one way or another, students’ right to free speech will be reaffirmed and UA’s policies will be changed to reflect that.
Will the Court upend First Amendment protections for social media platforms in NetChoice v. Paxton? Let’s hope not.