Last week I reported on the University of Alabama’s (UA’s) removal of a pro-life poster from a hallway display case that the student group Bama Students for Life (BSFL) had reserved in advance. A school administrator told BSFL President Claire Chretien that the display had been removed because the school received complaints that some of the pictures included were too graphic. As Chretien pointed out, however, UA’s hallway display guidelines (rightly) contain no restrictions on the content of displays. After a wave of negative publicity (including a press release from Alliance Defending Freedom, whose attorneys represent the group), a UA administrator wrote to BSFL to apologize for taking down the display two days before the end of the group’s reserved time. But the school has yet to seriously affirm student speech rights, leaving students vulnerable to additional content- or viewpoint-based censorship by administrators.
Reflecting on the school’s censorship of the pro-choice group Alabama Alliance for Sexual and Reproductive Justice (AASRJ) last year, Chretien told Tucker Carlson on Fox & Friends that school administrators “don’t seem to want students to have any kind of meaningful debate about abortion.” This statement alone is cause for concern. If students perceive the school as being hostile to open debate, they will likely censor themselves in order to avoid punishment.
UA has made a tepid effort to reassure students. According to Fox & Friends, Director of Media Relations Bill McDaniel released this statement:
The University of Alabama respects all of our students’ First Amendment rights to express their opinions. As a result of this incident, we are reviewing our guidelines for the display boards in the student center.
Despite McDaniel’s statement, there are a few reasons why free speech advocates should wait before declaring victory for free speech on campus.
First, while UA responded to FIRE’s criticism of its censorship of AASRJ by revising its grounds use policy (PDF) in order to allow for more student speech on campus, UA’s revised policy still does not allow for spontaneous speech. Even under the revised policy, AASRJ would still have been prevented from distributing literature in response to an ongoing pro-life event, as they had attempted to do. UA’s promises to review its guidelines in light of this most recent act of censorship involving the display, therefore, are not wholly reassuring. UA demonstrated last year that it is willing to take steps to compromise, but its actions so far do not reflect a full appreciation for unfettered debate on campus—something that should not be subject to compromise at a public university bound by the First Amendment.
Second, it is important to remember that the administrator who removed the poster was not acting in accordance with UA’s written policies on the use of display cases (PDF) on campus. Those written policies do not call for any assessment of the content of displays, and they are consistent with the fact that UA may not make viewpoint-based decisions about what messages students may share. UA should make clear, therefore, that any “reviewing” of guidelines will consist of ensuring that administrators follow current guidelines for hallway displays, not that the current guidelines might be revised to allow censorship of displays that might offend passersby. This should be a given, but it is far from evident at a “red light” school with a history of continually censoring student speech.
It is even more worrisome that some students support UA’s decision to censor BSFL’s display. One student writer for The Crimson White seemed to conflate the issue of whether the poster was persuasive with the question of whether it is constitutionally protected. A poll on the paper’s webpage reveals that nearly half of respondents believe the pro-life poster should have been removed from the student center. But student Andrew Parks wrote for The Crimson White to explain why this attitude is contrary to the purpose of the university:
This is a university. This is a place where points of view are supposed to be expressed, where our conceptions of society and the world around us are supposed to be challenged and where ideas are supposed to be freely exchanged. Any attempt by the administration to restrict that process without cause hinders our intellectual and social development as human beings, which is exactly what the University is supposed to facilitate.
We are glad to see UA allow Bama Students for Life to display its poster again. UA must, however, take additional steps in order to prevent administrators from censoring students at their discretion in the future. As always, FIRE would be happy to work with UA in order to continue revising its policies and practices.
Image: Gorgas House on University of Alabama Campus – PRweb.com