Monday’s attempt to play into the Harlem Shake meme by filming a video on the Quad may have been several days late. The lifespan of a meme is not long. Perhaps this one was already close to being played out. Regardless, the event had – and still has – the potential to be a force for unity on campus.
Of course, the Harlem Shake is not the issue. That the University’s policy abridges – but, importantly, does not take away – students’ right to peaceably assemble on the grounds of a public university is the issue.
The thousands of students who gathered on the Quad on Monday to do a funny dance did so peacefully. Further, they represented all corners of campus, breaking racial, organizational and cultural barriers. Unfortunately, that potential was crushed the moment University of Alabama Police Department officers arrived on the scene to disperse the crowd.
And why? Because the student who “organized” it, a loose term given how we define “organize” in the Internet age, did not have the proper permit.
The Grounds Use Permit works well for University-sanctioned events like fraternity parties planned months in advance. And it is understandable the University should have a system for regulating how and when students assemble, given the region’s civil rights era history. Still, the specifics of this policy are a cause for concern. The dispersal by police of an assembly of students such as the one Monday reveals serious flaws in how the student body’s right to free speech is handled by the University.
We’ve already addressed one prominent flaw: at this University, impromptu assemblies like the snowball fight on the Quad in January and the meeting of several hundred student volunteers at the Ferguson Center Plaza on April 28, 2011, were examples of real unity among the University’s diverse groups. For those organic assemblies, no one applied for a Grounds Use Permit.
A second flaw is the “chilling effect” ensured by the University’s requirement for a Grounds Use Permit, which can take up to 10 days to acquire. Again, in the Internet age, 10 days is an eternity. At least nine news cycles will inevitably come and go before a student can organize an assembly and hold it without fear of reprise from University authorities. That’s plenty of time for the student body at large to lose their desire to express themselves through peaceful assembly.
The third and most problematic flaw is the University’s requirement that any event be sponsored by a University department or student organization and, further, that a University-paid faculty member sign a form taking full responsibility for the event. This creates major disincentives for free speech. Should UA students wish to peacefully protest the actions of the University administration, for example, it is in a faculty member’s best interest to decline a student’s request to sign the form if they want to maintain good standing in the eyes of their employer.
Should UA abandon the policy altogether and allow mobs to form immediately after controversial events? Certainly not. But 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. This policy needs to change, and students need to press for this change.
Especially now. In the past several weeks UA has experienced several major events, including the on-campus attacks and burglaries perpetrated by football players and Tuesday’s record-breaking drug raids. These and other events have certainly elicited emotions from the student body. Once students examine those emotions with a cool head and determine for themselves what opinion they hold, they should be able to express those opinions before news cycles erase the issue.
The University could allow them to do that more effectively by altering their Grounds Use Policy. The freedom to assemble is protected by the First Amendment of the Constitution of the United States precisely because a government — or University — has little choice but to listen to thousands of people occupying a space. Look no further than this state’s very own civil rights history as proof of the power of a peaceful assembly.
So, any students who feel strongly about an issue, whether it is as small as the Harlem Shake or as large as a massive series of drug raids, should channel that energy into ensuring the University encodes a policy that respects their right to assemble with only a reasonable amount of hindrance. With that accomplished, they should use that right.
Our View is the consensus of The Crimson White Editorial Board. Online Editor Melissa Brown did not participate in this editorial.
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