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U of Alabama Fails to Respond to Letter on Speech Code; Students Consider New Strategies
Flyer graphic background - ShutterstockMore than six weeks after FIRE sent University of Alabama (UA) President Judy Bonner a letter explaining how UA’s grounds use policies unconstitutionally restrict students’ free speech rights, UA has still not responded, and students are expressing doubt that the university will revise the policies without legal pressure. To recap: Members of the Alabama Alliance for Sexual and Reproductive Justice (AASRJ) student organization were threatened with arrest for leafleting on campus without a permit. The act of leafleting was AASRJ’s peaceful and timely response to a demonstration by Bama Students for Life on the same day. FIRE’s Peter Bonilla commented to AL.com’s Melissa Brown last Friday on the problem with UA’s requirement that students apply for a permit 10 days before distributing flyers: "A pretty common feature in [grounds use policies like UA’s] are the inflexible demands on the students who have to reserve a place a minimum number of days in advance, not allowing a more spontaneous event responding to unfolding news," Bonilla said. "It doesn't leave groups a lot of options when they only learned about the event 24 hours beforehand." As Brown reported in her article, Bama Students for Life has itself vocally supported AASRJ’s right to counter-protest and FIRE’s efforts to protect students’ rights, and kudos to them for showing more awareness of the First Amendment than the UA administration. The group tweeted on July 1, “It took us nearly a MONTH to get [the] Genocide Awareness Project approved”—a reflection of the school’s confusing policies regarding the use of campus space. (FIRE, of course, defends First Amendment rights equally, regardless of viewpoint.) But even with criticism of the grounds use policy from those on both sides of the debate, UA administrators have shown no indication that they understand the interests at stake here: A university spokeswoman did not directly answer a question regarding Bonner's intent to respond to the public letter. When asked if the university has any plans to modify the policy after a contentious semester, she said the grounds use policy was implemented in response to the size of the student body and therefore an increased demand for the use of campus grounds and facilities, but that the university regularly reviews the policy "to be sure that it continues to meet our needs."According to the policy posted online at www.uafacilities.ua.edu, the policy was last revised in August 2010. AASRJ President Samaria Johnson told Brown that the group might reach out to the ACLU of Alabama in order to exert more pressure on the school to change its policies, since AU “has a history of ignoring student and organization complaints.” FIRE hopes to see UA revise its unconstitutional policies willingly, and supporters of free speech can encourage UA to do so by writing to President Bonner. In the meantime, we commend UA students for their commitment to open debate on campus. FIRE will continue to watch the situation closely and post updates here on The Torch, and of course we are always happy to help the university revise its policies in order to protect students’ rights.TAKE ACTION: Write to University of Alabama President Judy Bonner and ask UA to ensure equal free speech rights for all students!
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