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University of Alabama sued for restricting students' 'spontaneous' expression

ADF attorneys say university policy violates state law

University of Alabama
A sign sits on the campus of the University of Alabama in Tuscaloosa, Alabama. |

Students from a Young Americans for Liberty chapter filed a lawsuit last week against the University of Alabama for requiring students to obtain a permit to speak on campus five business days in advance, which they say violates a state free speech law.  

Since applications for speaking permits undergo university approval, attorneys for the students argue that university policy allows administrators to be selective of the speaking events or viewpoints they allow. They say the policy illegally prevents students from spontaneous expression or promoting their events.

The lawsuit argues that the university policy goes against Alabama’s Campus Free Speech Act and the Alabama Constitution’s Free Speech Clause, which restricts public colleges from inhibiting students’ free speech rights. 

YAL is a nationwide libertarian youth organization that advances liberty on campuses. The group is represented by attorneys from Alliance Defending Freedom, a nonprofit legal organization that advocates for free speech and has won several U.S. Supreme Court cases in recent years.

“All students — regardless of viewpoint — have the freedom to share their beliefs and engage in civil debate on campus without first asking college administrators for permission to speak,” ADF Legal Counsel Michael Ross said in a statement. 

“Universities are supposed to be the very places where students are free to explore diverse ideas and engage in civil and meaningful debate, but the University of Alabama is shutting down this debate with its burdensome speech policies."

YAL students often refrain from engaging with other students about gun control policy, federalism and other policy issues due to the “suppressive speech policies,” ADF reported. 

“Young Americans for Liberty exists to promote the principles of individual liberty, but the University of Alabama’s policies severely restrict our students’ ability to speak freely about these principles on campus,” YAL Director of Free Speech JP Kirby said. 

“Students don’t need a permit to speak freely on a public campus,” Kirby continued. “And they don’t give up their constitutionally protected freedoms when they step onto campus or hold a specific viewpoint.”

The university has seven designated “free speech zones” that make up less than 1% of the campus where students can engage in “spontaneous expression.” 

“University officials can’t banish freedom of thought to the remote corners of campus, keeping certain ideas out of sight and out of mind,” ADF tweeted on Monday. 

The lawsuit highlights how the university's policies have restricted the club from being able to recruit members, which has led to decreased funding for their organization. 

The Christian Post reached out to the university for comment on the lawsuit. A response is pending. 

Tyson Langhofer, ADF senior counsel and director of the Center for Academic Freedom, said that legal action wouldn't be necessary if university officials respected the state’s law protecting free speech on college campuses.

“Today’s college students are our future legislators, judges, and voters. That’s why it’s so important that public universities model the values they’re supposed to be teaching students and that colleges and universities in Alabama respect state law,” Langhofer said. 

“We are grateful that Gov. Ivey signed the FORUM Act [Forming Open and Robust University Minds] into law," Langhofer continued, "but now university officials must act consistently with that law to ensure that pro-liberty students — like all students — have the freedom to share their beliefs anywhere on campus, and without first asking college administrators for permission to speak."

The 2021 Spotlight on Speech Codes, a study conducted by Foundation for Individual Rights in Education [FIRE], revealed that 88% of American universities restricted free speech in some form after surveying 478 colleges and universities.  

In March 2019, former President Donald Trump signed an executive order to deny grants to universities that stifle free speech and said public institutions would not be allowed to violate their students’ constitutional rights. 

"Under the guise of speech codes, safe spaces and trigger warnings, these universities have tried to restrict free thought, impose total conformity and shut down the voices of great young Americans like those here today,” Trump said at the time. 

Emily Wood is a reporter for The Christian Post. She can be reached at: emily.wood@christianpost.com

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