TUSCALOOSA, Ala., May 13, 2004—Last year, the University of Alabama (UA) gained notoriety when it banned students from displaying the American flag (and all other flags) in their dorm windows. Now it has ordered a faculty group that is critical of the university’s grading policies to pay a rate eight times higher than that paid by other faculty organizations for use of the university’s mail system. The Foundation for Individual Rights in Education (FIRE) and the Princeton, N.J.-based National Association of Scholars (NAS) are protesting UA’s actions, which are only the latest in a long, sad string of assaults on free speech and expression.
“UA’s message is clear,” said Greg Lukianoff, FIRE’s director of legal and public advocacy. “Criticism of UA President Robert E. Witt and his administration will not be tolerated and will be met by repression and censorship. First, UA sought to ban all dorm window displays—including the American flag. Now, it goes after the ability of its critics to communicate with the world. It’s both sad and outrageous.”
In the August 2003 edition of its newsletter, The Alabama Observer, the Alabama Scholars Association (ASA) presented evidence of what it saw as grade inflation at UA. After the ASA mailed that issue of the newsletter, the administration informed the ASA that it would no longer be allowed to send mail using the discount rate enjoyed by other faculty organizations, thus making it prohibitively expensive for the ASA to distribute its newsletter. In October 2003, UA also delayed a fair-priced mailing of an ASA flier announcing a campus speech it was sponsoring until the very day of the speech, when such a mailing could have no effect at all.
Various UA administrators, including Provost Judy Bonner, offered shifting excuses throughout the next few months for why they would not allow the ASA to take advantage of the mail discount, including the false assertion that the UA chapter of the ASA was not actually based at the University of Alabama and the bizarre claim that the ASA was not a “recognized” faculty organization, despite the absence of rules for formal recognition of faculty organizations.
When the ASA pointed out that Alabama Academe, the newsletter of the state conference of the American Association of University Professors (AAUP)—published in Auburn, not at UA—long had been distributed at the lower rate, UA responded by raising the Academe‘s rates as well. Professor Charles Nuckolls, a member of the ASA, noted, “The administration was so desperate to silence us that they chose to stop the mailing of a completely different newsletter that had gone out for years just to prevent people from being exposed to our ideas.”
Last year, UA’s attempt to ban all dorm window displays as potentially offensive was “indefinitely tabled” following pressure from FIRE and the ASA, as well as from UA students who defiantly hung American flags in their windows to protest the ban. UA also attacked free expression in 2002, when its Faculty Senate launched an investigation into the ASA after the organization wrote to interested citizens and to members of the Alabama Legislature to protest a mandatory diversity training program for faculty that the ASA saw as Orwellian “thought reform.” The Faculty Senate dropped its investigation after FIRE brought UA’s actions into the light of public scrutiny.
In February, FIRE wrote to UA President Robert Witt, calling on him to reverse the university’s decision and to honor his duty to ensure that UA “serves as a vibrant ‘marketplace of ideas,’ not as a sterile echo chamber for ‘approved’ viewpoints only.” The National Association of Scholars also asked President Witt to uphold his legal obligations. Witt has yet to address either organization’s serious concerns.
FIRE’s Lukianoff concluded, “FIRE and the NAS are confident that public exposure of UA’s latest effort to silence speech will convince the university to let the marketplace of ideas flourish in Alabama.”
The National Association of Scholars (NAS) is an organization of professors, graduate students, college administrators and trustees, and independent scholars committed to rational discourse as the foundation of academic life in a free and democratic society. You can learn more about NAS at www.nas.org.
FIRE is a nonprofit educational foundation that unites civil rights and civil liberties leaders, scholars, journalists, and public intellectuals from across the political and ideological spectrum on behalf of individual rights, due process, freedom of expression, academic freedom, and rights of conscience at our nation’s colleges and universities. Please visit www.thefire.org to read more about FIRE’s efforts to preserve liberty at UA and on campuses across America.
Greg Lukianoff, Director of Legal and Public Advocacy, FIRE: 215-717-3473; firstname.lastname@example.org
Robert E. Witt, President, University of Alabama: 205-348-5103; email@example.com
Judy Bonner, Provost, University of Alabama: 205-348-4892; firstname.lastname@example.org
Charles W. Nuckolls and David T. Beito, ASA: 205-345-7378; email@example.com
Stephen H. Balch, President, National Association of Scholars: 609-683-7878; firstname.lastname@example.org