U. of Alabama Paper: ‘Harlem Shake’ Incident Demonstrates Need to Review Restrictive Speech Policy

February 20, 2013

We reported yesterday on the University of Alabama’s (UA’s) decision to crack down on a student-led attempt to organize a “Harlem Shake” video on UA’s campus quad. The attempted dance video was shut down by campus police because the students organizing the event had not obtained a permit before assembling their crowd—a requirement at UA that includes a 10-day waiting period.

In a well-considered editorial running today, the Editorial Board of the UA student newspaper The Crimson White writes that the whole episode is not just a silly exercise of the university police’s power. Rather, it demonstrates much more:

The dispersal by police of an assembly of students such as the one Monday reveals serious flaws in how the student body’s right to free speech is handled by the University.


A second flaw is the “chilling effect” ensured by the University’s requirement for a Grounds Use Permit, which can take up to 10 days to acquire. Again, in the Internet age, 10 days is an eternity. At least nine news cycles will inevitably come and go before a student can organize an assembly and hold it without fear of reprise from University authorities. That’s plenty of time for the student body at large to lose their desire to express themselves through peaceful assembly.

The Crimson White op-ed concludes by calling on the university to revise its policy to respect students’ First Amendment rights and encouraging students to advocate for this change. The entire piece is well worth a read, so be sure to check it out.

For more on UA’s Harlem Shake shutdown, please also read FIRE’s Will Creeley’s article in The Huffington Post, published today. Will writes:

But let’s set aside First Amendment doctrine for a minute and focus instead on common sense. By choosing to ticket Radfar, warn him against speaking to the press (a serious problem worth its own blog post), and deny hundreds of eager participants the chance to support their school by dancing on camera for a few minutes, UA has taught students a depressing lesson in censorship, bureaucracy, and heavy-handed regulation. Even if UA’s response was constitutionally permissible — and that’s arguable — it’s counterproductive and at odds with the university’s interest in fostering student involvement, interaction, and school pride.

Well said, Will.

Photo by Austin Bigoney, The Crimson White. Used with permission. 

Schools:  University of Alabama