Young Americans for Liberty, the nation’s leading youth libertarian organization, announced a free speech lawsuit against the University of Alabama in Huntsville Thursday aiming to strike down a policy that requires students to obtain speaking permits three days in advance of campus events.
The Alliance Defending Freedom, which is representing the school’s YAL chapter in the suit, is alleging that the policy violates Alabama’s Campus Free Speech Act.
"Alabama law is clear: Students don’t need a permit from college officials to speak on campus, but that’s exactly what the University of Alabama in Huntsville is doing — violating the law and shutting down speech on campus," ADF counsel Michael Ross, who specializes in academic freedom, said in a statement. "Public universities are the very places that should be encouraging free speech, not stifling it with burdensome and illegal rules."
The state law explicitly prohibits prior permission requirements for campus speech. And the U.S. Supreme Court has interpreted the First Amendment to prohibit "prior restraint" on speech as well.
A university spokeswoman said the school could not comment on the specifics of the pending litigation.
"The University of Alabama System Board of Trustees, the University of Alabama System, and the University of Alabama in Huntsville are steadfastly committed to the freedom of speech and expression for all campus community members," she said. "Our policies were implemented to preserve this important constitutional right."
On its website, the school's policies for outdoor areas and use of facilities state that UAH aims to protect free speech within reason.
"UAH supports the right to free expression on campus by University affiliates, through rallies, speeches, petitions, vigils, and distribution of materials, among others, provided such an Event complies with this policy and does not disrupt normal University activities, infringe upon the rights of others, or otherwise infringe on UAH’s significant interests," a portion its policy reads.
For planned outdoor events, campus groups are asked to seek a reservation between 10 and three days in advance. Requests to reserve space within campus facilities require applications even earlier – between 30 and 14 days prior.
And the policy requires written requests for the use of sound amplification and public address systems, which the school will consider "on a case-by-case basis."
"Students cannot thrive when college administrators are actively stifling the First Amendment," YAL chief of staff Sean Themea said in a statement. "The three-day approval period is nothing more than a way to silence anyone trying to express a new opinion on campus. To this end, YAL looks forward to teaming up, once again, with ADF to bring free speech to the University of Alabama in Huntsville."
The school policy requests that protests over controversial guest speakers be civil and warns that people attempting to interfere with one are subject to removal from the premises.
"The ideas of different members of a campus community will often and quite naturally conflict, but it is not the proper role of UAH to shield or attempt to shield individuals from ideas and opinions they find unwelcome, disagreeable, or even deeply offensive," the policy continues.
The school’s policy also defines "special guidelines for spontaneous activities of expression" – public speech in response to breaking news or current events. They are confined to 16 locations on the 432-acre campus.