The University should make it easier for student voices to be heard

Mark Hammontree

Since this is a special issue of the paper, this column is supposed to be about the status of students’ freedom of speech here on The University of Alabama’s campus. Well, I guess it’s supposed to be my opinion about the status of free speech.

But before we get to whether I think the University is or isn’t restricting the constitutional rights of its students, I guess we should first figure out what “free speech” really means.

“Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the government for a redress of grievances.”

So reads Amendment I of the Constitution, the first among the Bill of Rights. If taken at its most literal, “Congress shall make no law abridging the freedom of speech” is pretty clear in how absolute a person’s right is to say whatever they want. But the last 200 or so years have shown us just how foolish it would be to take this, or many other amendments, so literally as absolutes.

The simple truth is, you can’t say whatever you want. You can’t threaten bodily harm, you can’t harass and abuse, you can’t slander and you can’t call people to violence against others. Basically, your freedom of speech doesn’t include you infringing on the rights or health of 
somebody else.

Some people try to make freedom of speech a matter of extremes: either you’re for the complete freedom of anyone to say anything or you’re not. In reality, there are plenty of necessary and reasonable exemptions to the First Amendment that have been established over the course of our country’s history by Supreme Court cases and national and state laws.

Freedom of speech is not an absolute right but it is a necessary right. Citizens have to be able to share their opinions and their grievances for any society to be truly democratic. They have to be able to speak and shout and sing peacefully without fear of unreasonable penalty.

Unfortunately here at the University students do not have the ability to fully exercise that right to make their voices heard publicly. In order to hold any sort of protest or assembly on campus grounds, students must first apply for a grounds use permit. Although the administration has “revised” the policy at times over the last few years, the process for securing a permit is time consuming and restrictive.

There is currently no “free-speech zone” on campus, a space where students or groups can simply hold a spontaneous protest or assembly. The grounds use policy establishes unnecessary barriers to students expressing their voices in a way that can potentially yield results.

The way things stand now, the University can essentially dampen the potential for any group to actually make waves on campus, whatever the issue. Indeed, according to Cathy Andreen, the director of media relations, the policy is in place to ensure demonstrations “do not disrupt the University’s ability to educate our students and conduct our 
daily operations.”

If the ability for speech to disrupt the status quo and everyday routine of a society is restricted, then the spirit of the First Amendment is diminished. No, not all speech is free and without consequence. But this University cannot purposely turn students’ right to speak, assemble and petition into a theoretical ideal that has no real power 
on campus.

Mark Hammontree is a junior majoring in secondary education – 
language arts. His column runs weekly.