MOBILE, Ala. – Alliance Defending Freedom attorneys representing a pro-life student group have reached a legal settlement in a lawsuit that has increased the amount of the University of South Alabama campus that is open to free speech from less than one percent to the vast majority of campus. The settlement ensures that the university’s policies will be applied the same way to all student groups and prevents university officials from censoring pro-life speech based on its message.
The university had relegated Students for Life USA’s pro-life display to a small speech zone on campus because it deemed the event “controversial.” Under the university’s policies, students had to obtain a permit 72 hours in advance if they wanted to use any area outside of that zone. In 2014, ADF attorneys filed the suit Students for Life USA v. Waldrop in the U.S. District Court for the Southern District of Alabama on behalf of the student group.
“Public universities should encourage free speech, not shut it down or quarantine it to one small spot on campus,” said ADF Senior Counsel David Hacker. “This lawsuit has ensured that University of South Alabama students can enjoy the ‘marketplace of ideas’ that a public university is supposed to be.”
In October 2013 and again in February 2014, Students for Life USA requested permission to a hold a “Cemetery of Innocents” event, which consisted of students placing small crosses in the ground to represent the innocent lives lost to abortion. University officials denied the request and said it would need to be held in the campus’s speech zone, even though other groups had exercised free speech on other portions of the campus. At the time, the speech zone comprised less than one percent of the college’s main campus.
The university then changed its policy to allow student speech throughout most of the outdoor areas of campus, but it selectively prohibited students from engaging in free speech in areas that are visible from the roads bordering campus. The settlement ensures that this policy will be enforced in an even-handed way and that university officials do not have broad discretion to ban free speech based on its content or point of view. It also includes a financial settlement benefitting Students for Life USA.
“Universities are meant to be beacons for the free exchange of ideas. Sadly, they have too frequently become safe spaces to babysit kids who may be offended by a particular point of view,” said Kristan Hawkins, president of Students for Life of America, the nation’s largest pro-life youth organization, which works with more than 950 college and high school pro-life clubs. “We are pleased that the University of South Alabama will now allow its students to hear different viewpoints instead of protecting them from real-world discourse. Hopefully, other institutions of higher education will follow suit.”
“The Constitution protects the free speech rights of everyone, not just groups or students that a few university officials prefer,” added ADF Legal Counsel Travis Barham. “The First Amendment guarantees that students have the freedom to express themselves in the open, outdoor areas of campus, and students can now enjoy more of this liberty at the University of South Alabama. But we remain committed to eliminating so-called ‘free speech zones’ at all public colleges and universities.”
- Pronunciation guide: Barham (BEHR’-um)
Alliance Defending Freedom is an alliance-building, non-profit legal organization that advocates for the right of people to freely live out their faith.
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