Foundation says University of Alabama policy violates students' First Amendment rights
July 1, 2013
TUSCALOOSA, Alabama - The Foundation for Individual Rights in Education (FIRE) has intervened on behalf of a University of Alabama pro-abortion rights student group who say police ordered them to stop distributing flyers on campus during the spring semester.
In a letter sent to UA President Judy Bonner on May 22, FIRE requested that the university reassure its community that "expressive activity on campus" would not be censored. FIRE requested a response to the letter by June 12.
"Please spare the University of Alabama the embarrassment of fighting against the Bill of Rights -- a statement of both law and principle by which the university is legally and morally bound," Peter Bonilla, associate director of FIRE's Individual Rights Defense Program, wrote.
Bonilla said UA has not responded to the letter as of July 1.
At the center of the incident lies UA's contentious grounds use permit policy, a hot-button issue on campus during the spring semester after a student attempting to organize a campus-wide "Harlem Shake" video, a popular group dance at the time, was questioned and ticketed by UAPD in February. The large student crowd was dispersed, and the student feared he faced expulsion for organizing an event without a grounds use permit.
On April 10, 2013, Bama Students for Life hosted a "Genocide Awareness Project, a protest and display featuring graphic, anti-abortion-related images located on the Quad. BSL obtained the permits required to host the event, according to UA.
According to a FIRE press release, members of the Alabama Alliance for Sexual and Reproductive Justice handed out flyers in an attempt to counter GAP's anti-abortion message.
According to UA student newspaper The Crimson White, a bystander who received a flyer complained to a police officer that the material was "obscene," and officers moved to arrest AASRJ . The students were allowed to go once the situation was explained but were ordered to stop passing out flyers, on the grounds that AASRJ did not have a grounds use permit.
AASRJ members say they applied for a permit following the incident, in the hopes to resume their activities on April 11. UA officials said it would take days for the permit to be approved.
FIRE writes that the policy is impractical and unconstitutional because it does not allow for "spontaneous expression or demonstration" by students.
"Rallies and demonstration -- not to mention AASRJ's simple act of distributing information literature -- are often timely response to recent or still-unfolding events," Bonilla wrote. "To prohibit all such events on campus is to suppress free and open discourse."
FIRE's request for a policy change echoes those of students, including The Crimson White's editorial board. On Feb. 20, 2013, the paper's editorial board published an Our View in response to the Harlem Shake incident, calling for changes to be made to the grounds use policy.
"The last thing UA needs to do right now is stand behind its antiquated policy that stifles free speech and racial, organizational and cultural integration on this campus," the editorial board wrote. "The policy needs to change, and students need to press for this change."