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Grounds use policy complicates demonstrations

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Students protest during the Final Stand in the Schoolhouse Door march in 2013. The march did not apply for a permit and was not asked to cease activities. CW File

Elizabeth Elkin

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“I am in favor of having a grounds use policy to make sure everything is done safely and securely,” said Sam Ostrow, a freshman majoring in political science and history. “However, it needs to be enforced uniformly. Speech is most free when discourse is free. Without it, we lose the best thing about our country.”

The University implemented the Grounds Use Policy to better accommodate the growing student body and the increased demand to use campus grounds and facilities. Currently, any organization that wishes to use University property must request a grounds use permit through UA Facilities.

“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,” said Cathy Andreen, the director of media relations. “In addition, the process helps to avoid conflicts between events that might be scheduled for the same time and place.”

Events that have not been approved by University officials and have not received a Grounds Use Permit may be asked to cease activity and reschedule the event once they have a permit. The process of obtaining approval includes completing a training session and submitting a form that details the event.

In 2013, a Bama Students for Life demonstration sponsored by the Genocide Awareness Project featured graphic anti-abortion images. Organizers submitted a permit request and received approval from UA Facilities. The Alabama Alliance for Sexual and Reproductive Justice learned of the protest the afternoon before it began, according to members of the group. Group members wanted to pass out fliers as a counter protest. The AASRJ applied for a grounds use permit the day they started passing out fliers. Members of the group said an officer warned them that any members who continued to distribute fliers without a permit would be arrested.

The Foundation for Individual Rights in Education sent a letter to the University asking that the school change its Grounds Use Policy due to concern for students’ First Amendment rights. Peter Bonilla, director of the Individual Rights Defense Program at FIRE, spoke in favor of change to the policy after the 
letter was sent.

“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,” he said.

Other events the same year included a “Harlem Shake” filming, a Westboro Baptist Church demonstration, a counter protest to that demonstration, and the Final Stand in the Schoolhouse Door 2013 march. The “Harlem Shake” filming did not have a permit and participants were asked to cease activity. Both the church demonstration and the counter protest to that demonstration applied for and received permits. The Final Stand in the Schoolhouse Door, however, did not apply for a permit and was not asked to cease activities.

Students organized the march in response to allegations of racial discrimination in Panhellenic sorority formal recruitment on campus. Ross Green, one of the demonstration’s organizers, said they did not file any paperwork and never had any intention of doing so.

“While the demonstration was still under wraps we met with the administration and we told them we were intent on doing it at Rose [Administration Building],” he said after the event. “We met the day before to discuss what all was going on, our plans and their plans for what steps were going to be taken. I think they realized just how important this was to all of us and word had leaked to them about the demonstration. Dr. [Mark] Nelson streamlined the process for us, and he made it to where we could demonstrate there without having to file for a grounds use permit.”

Andreen said student-organized events can receive expedited approval for events that are in response to issues currently in the news. She said the option of expedited approval was added to the policy in July 2013 after the Bama Students for Life demonstration.

“I don’t know if I agree with the need for pre-approval for a First Amendment right,” said Garrett Watson, a freshman. “On the other hand, it does bring a bit of order, you know, so random belligerent groups don’t just show up.”

Courtney Wood, a freshman majoring in aerospace engineering, said she understands the need for a grounds use policy but is worried that it may infringe on First Amendment rights.

“I feel like the grounds use policy is a great concept to prevent chaos and organize people’s voices,” she said. “At the same time, organizing voices and limiting the large demonstrations hold people back and infringes on their freedom 
of speech.”

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Grounds use policy complicates demonstrations