TUSCALOOSA, Ala., July 1, 2013—University of Alabama police have ordered a pro-choice student group to cease distributing informational flyers on campus in response to another group’s pro-life event, and threatened members with arrest for failing to comply with its orders. The Foundation for Individual Rights in Education (FIRE) has intervened at UA following this blatant and chilling abuse of student First Amendment rights.
“Yet again, a public university bound by the First Amendment has regulated free speech far beyond what the Constitution allows,” said Robert Shibley, FIRE’s Senior Vice President. “The University of Alabama has no business telling a group of students—regardless of its views on abortion or any other issue—that it needs a permit just to hand out flyers on the campus’ main outdoor public area.”
As The Crimson White, UA’s student newspaper, reported on April 17, 2013, the student group Bama Students for Life hosted a “Genocide Awareness Project” (GAP) protest on UA’s quad on April 10 and 11. GAP protests are frequently hosted on college campuses and feature graphic, abortion-related images. Members of the Alabama Alliance for Sexual and Reproductive Justice (AASRJ) student group learned of the planned event on April 9 and decided to distribute flyers to counter GAP’s pro-life message.
The pro-choice students of AASRJ distributed flyers on the quad, in the vicinity of the protest, for roughly one hour on April 10 without incident. The Crimson White reports, however, that a woman complained to UA police about the content of one of the group’s flyers. UA police then ordered AARSJ to end its counter-protest and threatened to arrest two AASRJ members. One member reported, “We were then warned … [w]ithout a grounds permit, any member distributing fliers as part of AARSJ would be arrested.”
AASRJ submitted a grounds use permit request to UA in order to continue its counter-protest activities on April 11 but was informed by a UA official that the permit would not be approved in time. UA’s grounds use policy states that permits may be approved in “as few as 3 days,” but otherwise instructs that “applicants for use of other campus grounds should request permission for such use 10 working days prior to the event.”
“AASRJ should never have been required to obtain a permit for its expression in the first place,” said Peter Bonilla, associate director of FIRE’s Individual Rights Defense Program. “Further, UA’s actions here highlight the absurdity of requiring student groups to request permits days in advance just to exercise their free speech, forcing them to wait until their message has become yesterday’s news before being granted the right to speak.”
FIRE wrote to UA President Judy Bonner on May 22, reminding UA that it may not constitutionally require student groups like AASRJ to obtain permits to engage in such fundamental First Amendment activities as the peaceful distribution of informational materials. FIRE also pointed out deficiencies and contradictions in UA’s policies that make censorship of groups like AASRJ more likely. UA has failed to respond to FIRE’s letter, and AASRJ’s rights remain in jeopardy.
“UA’s grounds use policies and practices have made a mess of free expression on campus, confusing students, administrators, and law enforcement officials,” Bonilla said. “The university must act quickly to rectify its errors and clarify its policies before another student group finds itself burdened with unconstitutional requirements and threatened with unlawful arrest.”
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, freedom of expression, academic freedom, due process, and rights of conscience at our nation’s colleges and universities. FIRE’s efforts to preserve liberty on campuses across America can be viewed at thefire.org.