FIRE's Letter to the University of Alabama; July 15, 2003
July 15, 2003
President Robert E. Witt
Dear President Witt,
As you can see from our Directors and Board of Advisors, the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education (FIRE) unites leaders in the fields of civil rights and civil liberties, scholars, journalists, and public intellectuals across the political and ideological spectrum on behalf of liberty, legal equality, due process, academic freedom, freedom of religion, freedom of association, and, in this case, freedom of speech and expression at Americaâ€™s colleges and universities. Our web page, www.thefire.org, will give you a greater sense of our identity and activities.
FIRE is deeply troubled by a draft policy at the
It is hardly necessary to discuss the inappropriateness of enforcing a policy that has not even been adopted, much less published and distributed; your administrationâ€™s apparent unwillingness to pursue the matter when questioned by students and faculty indicates to us that you understand this. We wish, rather, to focus on the very real threat this regulation poses to free expression on your campus.
With a ban on anything that is â€śinconsistent with accepted standards,â€ť the question naturally arises: whose standards should be used? Are the â€śaccepted standardsâ€ť of the administration now enforceable on your campus? Or does the
If, however, the term â€śaccepted standardsâ€ť means â€śthose standards embraced by a majority of people,â€ť then the
Rights have no meaning when they can be overruled at the whim of the majority. Some of historyâ€™s greatest and most profound ideas were initially contrary to the â€śaccepted standardsâ€ť of their time. A free society cannot thrive if it will not tolerate the expression of those views that the majority finds abhorrent, troubling, or simply wrong. Without the right to dissent from â€śaccepted standards,â€ť a universityâ€™s intellectual life comes to an end. Those views that are espoused are held not by virtue of their truth but by the force of blind, unquestioned prejudice.
The policy itself gives some hint as to what those â€śaccepted standardsâ€ť will comprise. It prohibits, â€śfor example, posters of nude men and women.â€ť UA may not ban certain expression merely because of the content of that expression. Furthermore, banning â€śposters of nude men and womenâ€ť is unconstitutionally overbroad because it sweeps in expression that enjoys First Amendment protection. Would UA punish a student for hanging a picture of Goyaâ€™s â€śNaked Majaâ€ť or Michelangeloâ€™s â€śDavidâ€ť? Under a consistent application of this policy, the student would be in violation.
The policy continues: â€śpotentially harassing or intimidating visual materials may not be appropriate. Some room displays in public view may constitute a violation of University policies regarding racial or sexual harassment.â€ť It is hard to imagine how a simple room display can constitute â€śharassment.â€ť Individuals may not like a particular poster or may find a door display tasteless and offensive, but in neither case would a charge of harassment be warranted. UAâ€™s specific inclusion of this line leads us to suspect that your administration considers merely offensive expression to be harassment and is willing to use this policy to ban it. UAâ€™s intent to treat such expression as â€śharassmentâ€ť reveals a tepid commitment to the values of free expressionâ€"and trivializes real harassment itself.
Surely this is not your vision for the
As a public institution, bound by the Bill of Rights, the
This unconstitutional policy threatens the human, legal, and academic rights of your students and your faculty. We encourage you to abandon it. Please spare the
We look forward to hearing from you.
Director of Legal and Public Advocacy
Judy L. Bonner, Interim Provost
Susan Bigham, UAS Office of Counsel
David Beito, President,
Charles Nuckolls, Director,
Byron Rush White, Byrd Hall Professor-in-Residence
- FIRE's Letter to the University of Alabama; July 15, 2003, PDF, 162.6 KB