Protest at University of Alabama Raises Concerns Over Free Speech Zone

March 13, 2008

On Friday, February 29th, a protest by Students for a Democratic Society at the University of Alabama (UA) ended in the arrest of four people, two of them students, for disorderly conduct. According to The Crimson White, the university’s student paper, the four protesters entered a building on the UA campus dressed as soldiers and shouting. Once inside, the participants grabbed three individuals dressed in headscarves and, with a show of mock force, took them out of the building. Outside, one of the soldiers then announced to the crowd of onlookers that such disturbances happen every day in Iraq and that a speech would be given that night by a veteran of the current war in Iraq.

Whether such conduct actually disturbed the peace is debatable. However, the protest brought to light a free speech zone policy at UA which confines protests to a small area on the campus. An article in the Tuscaloosa News quotes FIRE’s Samantha Harris on the free speech zones.

UA’s codeand similar onesacross the country have drawn criticism for attempting to isolate potentially controversial speech to designated areas that may be far away from foot traffic.

"They seem to be some of the most unpopular policies among students," said Samantha Harris of the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education, a watchdog group for violations of personal liberties on college campuses. "Any sort of traditionally public space should be open to free speech. A lot of speeches and rallies are held in response to ongoing events so there’s no reason unscheduled demonstration can’t be held."

FIRE is continuing to monitor the situation.