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University of Alabama recommits to First Amendment obligations, says it won’t punish subjectively offensive speech
Following two letters from FIRE, the University of Alabama committed to protecting even offensive viewpoints on campus. This comes after the university announced an investigation of pro-Kanye West chalk messages on its sidewalks, saying the messages did not align with its “core values.”
As we wrote at the time, UA’s Grounds Use Policies related to chalking prohibit chalk in the location the messages appear to have been drawn. However, the university did not mention these viewpoint-neutral time, place, and manner policies when justifying the investigation. Instead, it cited its “Capstone Creed,” “campus culture,” and “core values.”
FIRE wrote UA in January expressing concern that UA’s statement that it would remove the messages based on its core values likely chilled student expression on similar issues. As a public institution bound by the First Amendment, UA has a responsibility to ensure its statements and actions do not chill student speech.
As we told the university:
UA’s statement implies it can and will investigate and/or punish messages deemed to violate UA’s “core values.” As to the former, the harm caused by investigations alone is not de minimis—investigations into protected expression frequently constitute implicit threat of discipline, and the resulting chilling effect can constitute cognizable First Amendment harm. The implication that students could be investigated for similar messages would very likely “chill or silence a person of ordinary firmness from future First Amendment activities.” If UA can investigate chalking that “#YeIsRight” could it investigate a student for tweeting the same message or saying it in class?
UA initially defended its actions to FIRE by stating that “the conclusion that the University’s pronouncement was aimed at chilling speech is unfortunate and incorrect.” But we pushed back, arguing that while the university may not have intended to chill student speech, its statement almost certainly did so.
University of Alabama cites ‘core values’ in investigating #YeIsRight chalk
UA responded on March 2, this time confirming it allows “expression of offensive views so long as those views are expressed in accordance with the terms of the University’s policies.” That’s what we want to hear — that UA will safeguard students’ expressive rights on campus.
A similar situation happened at the University of Florida last month. After pro-Kanye West chalk messages appeared on campus, then-UF President W. Kent Fuchs announced an investigation and condemned the messages as “acts of antisemitism, hatred and intolerance.” FIRE wrote UF explaining that while its content-neutral time, place, and manner policies would justify investigation and removal of the messages, its statement almost certainly chills students from expressing controversial views on campus. In response, UF confirmed that it never launched an investigation.
FIRE commends UA and UF for making clear they will not punish subjectively offensive but protected expression on their public campuses. We look forward to continuing to work with both schools to that end.
FIRE defends the rights of students and faculty members — no matter their views — at public and private universities and colleges in the United States. If you are a student or a faculty member facing investigation or punishment for your speech, submit your case to FIRE today. If you’re a faculty member at a public college or university, call the Faculty Legal Defense Fund 24-hour hotline at 254-500-FLDF (3533). If you’re a college journalist facing censorship or a media law question, call the Student Press Freedom Initiative 24-hour hotline at 717-734-SPFI (7734).
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