In response to threats of arrest toward counter- protesters at a Bama Students for Life’s protest on the Quad in April, the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education sent a letter to The University of Alabama May 22 asking the school to recognize that students’ First Amendment rights had been violated and to change its grounds use policy.
Peter Bonilla, director of the Individual Rights Defense Program at FIRE, said members of the Alabama Alliance for Sexual and Reproductive Justice were threatened with arrest for distributing literature without a grounds use permit.
“The police informed the students who were distributing the fliers as part of the AASRJ that they weren’t allowed to be giving out fliers without a permit, that they had to apply for a permit with the UA administration and that they could be arrested if they were doing so as part of a group activity again,” Bonilla said.
Members of AASRJ did not find out about Bama Students for Life’s impending Genocide Awareness Project until two days before the event itself. The grounds use policy states that permits need at least 10 business days in order to be processed. In certain cases, permits can be processed in three days, Bonilla said. At the time of its counter-protest, AASRJ was informed there would not be time for their grounds use permit application to be processed.
Bonilla said threatening students with arrest for distributing literature represents a clear violation of First Amendment rights.
“I think a handful of students, whether in their individual capacities or as part of one of The University of Alabama’s many campus organizations, when it’s a matter of a handful of students peacefully giving out fliers on the public area of the campus, that is simply a free speech activity that should never require obtaining a permit from the University to do so,” Bonilla said.
Cathy Andreen, director of the Office of Media Relations, said the grounds use policy is intended to deal with the growing demand for the use of space on campus.
“The grounds use permit process ensures that events, speeches, demonstrations, etc., held on our campus do not endanger the safety of our students and the campus community and do not disrupt the University’s ability to educate our students and conduct our daily operations,” Andreen said. “In addition, the process helps to avoid conflicts between events that might be scheduled for the same time and place.”
Samaria Johnson, president of AASRJ, said student organizations need to be able to respond to events like GAP without having to go through a permit process in advance.
“If something like the GAP happens, there shouldn’t be a reason why students and student organizations can’t respond without a permit,” Johnson said.
Claire Chretien, president of Bama Students for Life, said the organization intended to create dialogue with other students through the displays and was not upset when counter-protesters began handing out fliers.
“Bama Students for Life always welcomes a dialogue about abortion,” Chretien said. “The reason that we hosted Genocide Awareness Project was to create and foster a campus dialogue about abortion. So we welcome counter-protesters and people with differing opinions to come and talk to us about abortion.”
Bonilla said FIRE would first like to see the University admit its grounds use policy was improperly applied.
“An acknowledgment from the University of some kind that it was used improperly in this case would be a very good start,” Bonilla said.
FIRE and AASRJ also requested the University change its grounds use policy so incidents like the one in April do not occur again.
“We have concerns about the grounds use policy, how in some areas it’s very vague. In other areas, both in the policy and related documents, it gives some contradictory directions and information,” Bonilla said.
Bonilla and Johnson both said there were certain instances where preclearance would be justified, such as when large displays, security or other logistical concerns would need to be taken into account.
“I know back in February the Harlem Shake thing got shut down,” Johnson said. “To some extent, I can understand that.”
Chretien said she felt Bama Students for Life was subjected to an unnecessary degree of scrutiny when applying for their grounds use permit.
“It seemed silly to me that we needed to jump through all of these hoops just for a simple protest,” Chretien said. “I think that AASRJ president Samaria Johnson said it well when she said that the grounds use policy doesn’t necessarily allow for organic protest to happen very well.”
Johnson said AASRJ would like to see several changes to the grounds use policy, including eliminating the waiting period if no conflicts exist, posting permit applications and approvals to an accessible public notice board, establishing what types of events need a permit, and eliminating the permit requirement for protests that are in response to already-existing events.
While she did not specifically mention AASRJ or the event, Andreen did state the University regularly reviews the grounds use policy.
Although the University’s response has been limited, Bonilla said FIRE will not let the matter be overlooked.
“We certainly won’t just go away once the press around this dies down,” Bonilla said.
Johnson said AASRJ will consider filing a lawsuit against the University if their concerns are not addressed in the near future.
“My officers and members discussed taking the case to the ACLU, which we will if the University administration doesn’t respond before some time in mid-September,” Johnson said.
While FIRE itself does not litigate against universities, it has assisted individuals and organizations with similar suits in the past.
“I think The University of Alabama should be well aware that FIRE has helped coordinate a number of challenges to university policies on free speech grounds, and we have an overwhelmingly successful track record,” Bonilla said.
Bonilla also said FIRE is not taking a particular stand on the abortion debate, but that it seeks to defend the free speech rights of all students, faculty and organizations on campuses around the country.
“In this case, it’s a pro-choice student group that we’re defending, and we’re obviously very happy to be defending their right to free speech, and FIRE does that for student groups around the country regardless of their viewpoint,” Bonilla said.
Both groups involved with the April protests said they can put their differences aside to defend the First Amendment rights of all students at the University.
“It’s less about the Alabama Alliance and more about how student organizations are treated on campus and how students are allowed to express themselves,” Johnson said.
Andreen said the University was committed to upholding the values of free speech and self expression.
“As an institution of higher learning, The University of Alabama attaches great value to freedom of speech and open debate and to the principles of civility and respect that govern an academic community,” Andreen said. “As an academic community, our educational mission is enhanced by the robust exchange of ideas that occurs within a diverse and inclusive learning environment.”
However, FIRE and AASRJ said the rights of the counter-protesters were infringed upon when UAPD officers threatened to arrest them. Even the president of Bama Students for Life supports the opposing groups’ attempts to have the policy changed.
“We stand by the AASRJ, and we’re glad FIRE is standing up for students free speech rights,” Chretien said.