On Sept. 16 the University of Alabama was a center for political activity. The state’s gubernatorial candidates were present for a debate and several groups exercised their right to free speech on campus. But just how free were these groups to exercise their first amendment rights?
“As an institution of higher learning, the University of Alabama attaches great value to freedom of speech and open debate, but it also attaches great importance to the principles of civility and respect that govern an academic community,” Director of Media Relations Cathy Andreen said.
Starting in the 1960s, public universities became common sites for public demonstrations and social activism, especially for rallies concerning the Vietnam War. This trend started dwindling in the 1980s and 90s. During this time, according to firstamendmentcenter.org, universities began enacting speech codes to instill greater civility on public campuses.
According to firstamedmentcenter.org, university officials have argued that free-speech zones are content-neutral and don’t ban student expression. Thus, the policies are constitutionally acceptable because they merely regulate where speech takes places and do not place any restrictions on whether the speech can take place at all.
According to Andreen, the University’s free speech code is similar to those of other universities. Alabama does not have designated free speech zones but does require anyone wanting to hold an event, speech, rally or demonstration to acquire a permit from UA Grounds and Facilities. Andreen said this policy was implemented in response to the increase in the size of Alabama’s student body and an increased demand for the use of UA grounds and facilities.
“We use the Ground Use Permit process to ensure that students, visitors and guests who want to hold events, speeches, rallies or demonstrations on our campus can do so without endangering the safety of our students and the campus community. We also want to ensure these events occur without disrupting the University’s ability to educate our students and conduct our daily operations,” Andreen said.
In the case of last week’s rally against strip mining near the Black Warrior River, Andreen said the University asked the student organization to abide by the terms of the Grounds Use Permit that was approved.
According to Mallory Flowers, president of the University of Alabama’s chapter of Environmental Council, the student organization went through the proper process to acquire a permit for last Thursday’s rally. Flowers said the process was confusing because various offices on campus had different answers concerning whether the group needed a permit to hold their rally or not.
“Some offices told us there were designated free speech zones while others told us we needed to get a permit. At one point I was even given a map outlining First Amendment areas on campus. Finally, we learned we did need to acquire a permit from UA Grounds and Facilities,” Flowers said.
Though the group originally requested for their rally to be held at the Bryant Conference Center where a Board of Trustees meeting was to be held the same day, they were not granted this spot. Flowers said the Environmental Council was told their requested location would not be available due to security reasons surrounding the gubernatorial debate.
“Though we were slightly disappointed because we had hoped to gain the attention of the Trustees, we understood the University’s concerns and planned to continue our rally with the granted permit for an area across the street from Moody Music Hall on the corner of University Boulevard,” Flowers said.
Laurie Johns, a UA School of Law alumna and participant in last week’s protest, said the area designated made her feel embarrassed to be exercising her right to free speech.
“I don’t know if you saw the area we were given for our rally last Thursday, but they had these ropes put up and we were required to stay in a box. Honestly, it was insulting; really degrading. I felt embarrassed to be standing up for something I feel really passionately about,” Johns said.
Two days prior to the rally, Andreen said the University learned the student organization was planning to gather at a second location that was not requested in their Grounds Use Permit application.
“With both a Board of Trustees meeting and a gubernatorial debate in that area of campus in the same timeframe, we could not accommodate a large group of people gathering at that site,” Andreen said.
Flowers said she was contacted by the University and was told the group could not meet or march from one location on campus to another.
“The whole second meeting place and march is really a bit of a misunderstanding,” Flowers said. “Because we were granted a location slightly removed from campus we were concerned participants from the community would not be able to find us. So, we planned to meet at Denny Chimes, an easy-to-find location, to field questions about what we were doing and then walk to our rally location together,” Flowers said.
According to Flowers, this information was misinterpreted by a reporter from The Birmingham News, who published that the Environmental Council was planning on marching from Denny Chimes to their rally location.
“I really feel like this has been a big misunderstanding. We want to work with the University not against them,” Flowers said.
While she said she does not want to take away from the students’ work to raise awareness about the strip mining, Johns said she feels the issue of free speech on campus should be a major concern.
“I don’t know what they are teaching you [students] these days, but I wasn’t taught that in American you have to stand in a box to exercise your freedom of speech. I thought America was all about free speech,” Johns said.
Though Johns said she and the students stayed within the confines of their roped off space, she said she would have been much more satisfied if the group had decided to stand just outside of the Moody Music Hall rather than across the street.
“I really felt that my first amendment rights were being trampled upon,” Johns said. “When I asked the students around me if they felt the same, I got blank, glassy eyed stares. It was almost like I was speaking in tongues. What is going to become of America if we don’t stand up for our rights?”