Student Papers at U of Alabama, U of Vermont Demonstrate the Value of a Free Press

February 27, 2014

In case Torch readers wanted more examples of the value of a free student press on college and university campuses, recent columns in student newspapers at the University of Alabama (UA) and the University of Vermont (UVM) fit the bill. Earlier in the week, as part of FIRE’s Free Press Week coverage, I highlighted our key cases from the past year defending the rights of student journalists and press outlets. Now, these well-crafted columns at UA and UVM, which call on their respective institutions to restore First Amendment rights to the student body, further showcase the importance of free press rights on campus.

Maxton Thoman of the UA student paper The Crimson White writes about the university’s repeated failures to uphold students’ freedom of speech, and decries the apparent level of apathy among the student body toward these incidents. As Thoman points out:

Two weeks ago, the story broke about the Bama Students for Life’s display being removed from the Ferguson Center, and it picked up significant press. People started talking, columns were written, and everyone seemed up in arms. This week, I’ve barely heard anything of it.

A year ago, the Harlem Shake was shut down before it even began. Again, everyone was up in arms. Weeks later, not only had the Harlem Shake been forgotten, but also our dismay at this administration.

These are excellent points; if students wish to safeguard their basic free speech rights, they must not forget about such incidents and simply allow the university to move on, without revising its policies and practices. And indeed, UA has had more than its share of First Amendment problems over the past few years, which is why the university earned its place in our list of the “Worst Colleges for Free Speech” in 2013. Therefore, Thoman writes:

In my short two years here at The University of Alabama, I’ve seen a lot of talk on the topic of free speech and how it pertains to our ground use policies, but I’ve seen no action. Frankly, I’m sick and tired of it.

As a collective student body, we need to take these Student Government Association elections as seriously as possible, electing only those who will demand transparency and fight for student liberties, and demand a recall on grounds use and student liberties, so that we can enact exact and overarching revisions to this university’s mentality on free speech.

It’s time for change.

While Thoman makes this stirring call for increased student involvement, another student newspaper column examines similar issues at UVM. Writing for The Vermont Cynic, Braden Keiser states:

The right to free speech and media is a testament of American democracy. The Cynic’s 130th anniversary as a student voice marks not only the tradition of speech, but also the commitment of the University to a student’s right to voice and information.

But, as in any anniversary, we must examine and reflect upon such commitments: has the university supported the students’ voice in an unequivocal and uninhibited manner?

Keiser goes on to highlight UVM’s “yellow light” rating in FIRE’s Spotlight database, based on three separate policies that infringe upon students’ First Amendment rights. These policies run counter not only to UVM’s legal obligations as a public university, but also to whatever “commitments” to students’ “right to voice and information” have existed at UVM over the years, as well as any culture of free speech that exists among the student body, writers for the Cynic included.

The good news for both UA and UVM, of course, is that FIRE is always ready to assist universities with improving their policies to better protect campus discourse. We would love nothing more than to help both of these schools get rid of their current speech codes.

In the meantime, student columns such as these are valuable in pushing the issue forward and reminding fellow students about the need to stay vigilant about their First Amendment rights. Our thanks to Braden Keiser of The Vermont Cynic and Maxton Thoman of The Crimson White for their efforts!

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Schools:  University of Vermont University of Alabama