UA changed its grounds use policy. Here’s how it could impact protests

In the midst of a nationwide reckoning, the University revised policies that student activists worry will discourage protests.

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CW / Keely Brewer

Farrah Sanders (right) led a march to Rose Administration in the fall of 2019 to raise concerns about free speech and racism on campus.

UA’s updated facility and grounds use policy bans gatherings or displays in front of Rose Administration Building and the President’s Mansion. 

The policy was revised and posted to the Grounds Use website on July 1, 2020. A UA News COVID-19 update sent to students on Dec. 17 mentioned the policy in a paragraph affirming the University’s commitment to free speech and open inquiry and expression. 

Section C of the updated policy reserves the area in front of Rose exclusively for use by UA administration, with similar restrictions to the President’s Mansion lawn and driveway. 

The UA News email sent to students in December did not mention revisions made to the policy, and previous versions are not available on the Grounds Use website. The phrases “Rose Administration Building” or “President’s Mansion” are not included in the former policy, which was revised in November 2017.

The updated version includes a section titled “Activities of Expression,” a 500-word statement on the University’s commitment to free speech and expression. The word “expression” was not included in the 2017 version. It is used 34 times in the updated policy. 

‘It kind of silences us’

Farrah Sanders, a recent UA graduate who attended and organized protests during her time as a student, said the policy takes away locations to protest on campus that, symbolically and literally, are places of power. 

In September 2019, UA’s former dean of students resigned after screenshots of his tweets resurfaced in a Breitbart News article. Two weeks later, Sanders led more than 100 students in the Change Is Now march, where she presented a list of demands to senior leadership on the front steps of Rose. The march, she said, was about how we allow our First Amendment rights to be upheld.

CW / Hannah Saad

“To take away those locations, it kind of silences us,” Sanders said. “President Bell doesn’t have to come to Gorgas [Library] or Foster Auditorium or other places we may gather, but he is in Rose.”

A copy of the previous policy was provided to The Crimson White by UA’s Division of Strategic Communications. In response to the request, they also shared a Board of Trustees resolution titled “Recognizing Commitment to Freedom of Speech and Expression,” which was released a month prior to the policy’s revision. 

“To this end,” the resolution said, “the Board and each of its campuses has a solemn responsibility not only to promote a lively and fearless freedom of debate and deliberation, but also to protect that freedom when others attempt to restrict it.” 

In the resolution, the Board affirmed its commitment to free speech and expression for members of its campus communities “except as limitations on that freedom are appropriate to the functioning of the campuses.” 

The Board reserves the right to restrict expression that is illegal, defamatory or threatening. It can limit expression that unjustifiably invades privacy or confidentiality interests or is incompatible with the functioning of the University. Reasonable time, place and manner restrictions apply to all on-campus events. 

Monica Watts, UA’s associate vice president for communications, said “The University is committed to free speech and open inquiry and expression for faculty, staff and students. It supports and fosters the ability of the campus community to engage in debate and deliberation in a productive and responsible manner on campus.”

Spontaneous events of expression resulting from “news or affairs coming into public knowledge” within 48 hours before the event can gather in any of the seven areas of campus that are designated for spontaneous events and activities of expression.

View the new policy below. Major additions have been highlighted.

A Reckoning

Sanders said she can not speak to the intent of the Board or UA administration, but said she didn’t feel the timing of the policy’s revision was coincidental. 

“We were right in the middle of a summer of protests, of serious conversations being held,” Sanders said. 

Sterling Dozier, a junior majoring in finance and economics, assisted Sanders with the Change Is Now march and has participated in other campus protests. He called the policy change “disappointing, especially taking into account the timing.” 

In early June, less than a month before the University revised the policy, protests across Tuscaloosa drew thousands of participants seeking police reform after the deadly arrest of George Floyd in Minneapolis. Several other protests were staged throughout the summer in Tuscaloosa amid a wave of demonstrations across the country.

I try to be as objective as possible when facing issues, but there’s not really a part of this that feels correct.”

— Farrah Sanders

On June 7, the Board authorized the removal of three Confederate plaques previously located in front of Gorgas.

This period sparked petitions from UA students that urged for a change to on-campus buildings with racist namesakes, which mirrored a national call for change. In response, the Board created a committee to review building names. Three academic buildings have been renamed.   

“[The policy was changed] when we were in the middle of the racial reckoning happening across the country,” Dozier said. “So you just have to wonder if that had something to do with it.”

‘Safety and order’

Section F of the policy said the University supports free expression, as long as that expression complies with the policy and “does not disrupt normal University activities, infringe upon the rights of others, or otherwise infringe on the University’s significant interests.”

The updated policy said ensuring “safety and order” on campus are two significant interests that shaped the policy, and that reasonable time, place and manner restrictions may be imposed to avoid disruption of ordinary activities.

Faculty stage a work-in at Rose Administration following the Change is Now march.

The Board’s resolution, however, said “concerns about civility and mutual respect can never be used to justify closing off the otherwise lawful discussion of ideas among members of the campus community.” 

Dozier said the safety concern was “laughable, because that’s the point of the Grounds Use Permit.” 

In accordance with the policy, an individual or group seeking to reserve space on campus must apply for a Grounds Use Permit, which requires the applicant to outline the location, the time and the number of expected participants. By completing the form, the applicant agrees to comply with health and safety requirements. 

Dozier said he was unaware of any University approved protests that had “gone south” or become unsafe. He referenced the monthslong work-ins at Rose after the Change Is Now march. 

“A lot of the time, [the work-in] wasn’t really a disruption,” Dozier said. “Most times, administrators would just walk past and ignore them, but sometimes administrators would stop on their lunch break and talk to them.”

He said he worries the new policy will discourage students from making their voices heard, while Sanders said she wonders how it will impact an already strained relationship between administration and the student body. 

“I try to be objective,” Sanders said. “I try to be as objective as possible when facing issues, but there’s not really a part of this that feels correct.”