Free speech win in Alabama: UA Huntsville to change policy to respect students' foundational freedoms
HUNTSVILLE, Ala. – In a victory for free speech at public universities, the University of Alabama in Huntsville will eliminate its unlawful “speech zones” and its requirement that students obtain a permit three business days in advance to speak on campus about most topics. Alliance Defending Freedom attorneys representing a Young Americans for Liberty chapter and student-member Joshua Greer favorably settled their lawsuit challenging the university’s policy that violated the Alabama Campus Free Speech Act and the Alabama Constitution.
“College students have the freedom to share their beliefs anywhere on campus; they don’t need permission from college officials to speak, nor should they have to jump through burdensome and illegal hoops just to talk with their classmates outside,” said ADF Senior Counsel Tyson Langhofer, director of the ADF Center for Academic Freedom. “Alabama state law guarantees that all students at public universities can freely speak outdoors on campus grounds. We commend the University of Alabama in Huntsville for doing the right thing by amending its policy to respect students’ free speech rights.”
Alabama’s Campus Free Speech Act requires public colleges and universities to respect the free speech rights of students on campus and explicitly prohibits limiting student speech to “speech zones” and imposing prior permission requirements and other speech-suppressive measures. Alabama’s act is similar to laws on the books in 23 other states that protect the free speech and association freedoms of college students, professors, and staff across the country. As ADF attorneys explained in the lawsuit, Young Americans for Liberty at University of Alabama in Huntsville v. St. John IV, the university’s policy illegally prevented students from engaging in spontaneous expression and from promoting their events. The Alabama Supreme Court agreed, ruling in November of last year that the university’s speech zones as alleged “plainly” violate Alabama’s law and that “serious doubt” existed about the legality of the university’s requirement that even a single student seek permission in advance before speaking in the outdoor areas of campus.
Student members of Young Americans for Liberty want to engage their peers in important policy debates about a variety of issues, including gun control, federalism, and other topics, but refrained from doing so for fear of violating the university’s burdensome speech policy. The policy required students to share their views on certain topics in specified speech zones and request approval to speak days in advance. And because the permits were subject to the university’s discretionary approval, administrators could pick and choose which events and viewpoints were allowed on campus.
As part of the settlement agreement, the Circuit Court of Madison County entered a consent order Monday stating that the case will be dismissed once the university amends its policy. In addition to abolishing “speech zones” and the prior permission requirement, the university’s amended policy also eliminates provisions that granted administrators discretion to deny permission to speak based on the viewpoint of the speaker.
“Often, universities deny that their illegal restrictions on speech prevent students from speaking and assembling freely. However, when we see cases such as this—where a university goes to great lengths to defend its restrictions—we understand that actions are louder than words and that students must be vigilant and stick to their principles against university bureaucrats,” said JP Kirby, director of Student Rights at YAL. “I’m thankful for Joshua Greer, the YAL team, and Alliance Defending Freedom for seeing this fight through to the end. We will continue to use this momentum to fight for student free speech in Alabama.”
Matt Clark of the Alabama Center for Law and Liberty, one of more than 4,700 attorneys in the ADF Attorney Network, is serving as local counsel for Greer and the student group.
The ADF Center for Academic Freedom is dedicated to protecting First Amendment and related freedoms for students and faculty so that everyone can freely participate in the marketplace of ideas without fear of government censorship.