UA must edit policies to protect free speech

Editorial Board

A university should be a place for a community of scholars to exchange knowledge and engage in meaningful discourse – a marketplace of ideas where truth prevails. Such a vision of higher education necessitates free discussions amongst all members of the community, regardless of whether or not those discussions are unpopular, unsavory or controversial. The burden is on us to learn, understand and respect conflicting beliefs and diverse viewpoints. The world is not black and white. It’s gray, and if we do not understand that we will not always be right, we will have failed the core mission of attaining an education.

Several policies at The University of Alabama reduce the number of controversial discussions and have a chilling effect on speech that some might find uncomfortable. Portions of the Housing and Residential Communities Community Living Standards, Student Code of Conduct and Grounds Use Permit policies stand in direct opposition to both our constitutional right to free speech and the idea of the University as a place for the free exchange 
of ideas.

The Foundation for Individual Rights in Education, a non-profit Philadephia-based group that monitors First Amendment rights on college campuses, gave The University of Alabama’s speech code a red light rating. A red rating means that at least one policy both clearly and substantially restricts freedom of speech. The HRC Community Living Standards outlines forms of speech that it prohibits, including “harassment,” “threats of violence” and “discriminatory or inflammatory language … with the intent to harm or incite.” Some of these guidelines refer to speech that is patently illegal, like threats and language with the intent to incite violence. However, broadly banning things like “inflammatory language” or “harassment” has no legal precedent and, as UCLA law professor Eugene Volokh pointed out, speech that can be called harassment “isn’t limited to threats or insults, but includes political statements, religious proselytizing, art, and humor – material that’s at the core of the First Amendment’s protections.”

HRC needs to make a clear distinction between illegal speech like threats of physical violence and protected speech like inflammatory language that does not entail the intent to harm or incite violence. Substantial changes to the HRC policy and Student Code of Conduct removing portions that prohibit protected speech and clarifying speech that has been found illegal will bolster productive discussion on campus while encouraging students to engage in a true, unrestrained exchange of ideas. How these policies are applied is irrelevant; their mere existence represents an attempt to chill free speech on campus.

Grounds use permits must also be substantially revised in order to promote free student speech. In the past few years alone, the grounds use policy has been used unequally to permit certain groups on campus while preventing other groups from assembling. For example, the 2013 “Harlem Shake” was required to disband and file for a permit while movements like the Final Stand in the Schoolhouse Door were given a permit ex post facto. When Bama Students for Life, armed with a grounds use permit, held a demonstration on campus with pictures of aborted fetuses to convey their message, they were protected from counter protesters who did not have a permit. Inconsistency in granting a permit is a de facto means of control over what groups and ideas are permitted on campus. Yes, recent changes by the University have streamlined the process to acquire a permit, but their application to traditional public forums on campus like the Quad still represents a fundamental challenge to free speech.

The Quad has historically been used as a place for public gathering and as a public forum. Every gameday in the fall and every Homecoming bonfire serves to demonstrate the public nature of the Quad. For that reason, enforcing time, place and manner restrictions on a public space that has historically been used as a public forum violates the Constitution and goes against the free exchange of ideas that constitutes a place of 
higher education.

Furthermore, spontaneous demonstrations and assemblies must be allowed to occur somewhere on campus, and the Quad is the natural location. Likewise, counter protesters, whether they are individuals or groups, should be able to exercise their rights to free speech, regardless of whether or not they have a grounds 
use permit.

The right to peacefully assemble and present controversial ideas is a fundamental part of American history and a basic right for all. Places of higher education like The University of Alabama must be free marketplaces for all ideas and and must set aside areas on campus for students to gather and voice their opinions. Similarly, the University policies that govern individual students need to be more specific and differentiate between protected and unprotected speech. As campuses across the country to implement speech codes, ban speakers and broadly limit student speech, The University of Alabama must take a stand and commit itself to the free and open exchange of ideas.

Our View represents the consensus of The Crimson White Editorial Board.