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Alabama's Campus Free Speech Firestorm Leads to Legislative Action

June 5, 2019

June 4, 2019
By Jonathan Butcher

Scott Morris says he was always just “one infuriated administrator away” from losing his job. Morris, advisor to the Flor-Ala, the University of North Alabama’s (UNA) student newspaper, helped student journalists complete a records request last year and found his infuriated college official.

As the Flor-Ala saga unfolds, Alabama lawmakers have sent Gov. Kay Ivey a proposal to protect free speech on campus that adds protections to the expressive rights of students, faculty, and other college officials at UNA and other state colleges.

The timing of the Flor-Ala events and the legislative proposal is more coincidental that causational, though free-speech incidents are so prevalent on campuses around the country that state lawmakers everywhere should be considering ways to protect expressive activity on campus.

First, the proposal to protect free expression: Alabama’s proposal follows the sound design of similar protections adopted in North Carolina, Arizona, Georgia, and by the University of Wisconsin Board of Regents. In Alabama, public institutions must consider sanctions for anyone in the campus community that violates someone else’s expressive activity; abolish so-called “free-speech zones” that limit speech to isolated areas of campus; and require university trustees to report annually on free-speech incidents, to name a few provisions. 

The Alabama proposal—like the proposals in Wisconsin, Arizona, and the other states listed above, which are inspired by the Goldwater Institute’s campus free-speech model legislation—allows individuals to protest on campus as long as they do not interfere with the expressive rights of someone else. Provisions such as these helped prevent a shoutdown at the University of Wisconsin in 2017, as demonstrating students told reporters they would conduct a protest outside of a lecture hall but not disrupt the event because they could face suspension or expulsion under the university board of regents’ policy.

Alabama’s provisions do not take effect until next year, giving opponents one more legislative session to try to derail the proposal. The proposal passed with bipartisan support, but video footage shows one member shouting at the bill sponsor, Rep. Matt Fridy (R-73), outside of a meeting room. The member had to be physically separated from Rep. Fridy.

Second, returning to the Flor-Ala episode: Morris and the student reporters at UNA say they were within their rights to request and ultimately report on a university professor’s (thereby a state employee, in this instance) personnel record. Students accused the professor of sexual misconduct under Title IX, and he was eventually fired. The paper criticized the University for withholding documents and cited an opinion by former U.S. Attorney General Jeff Sessions and related case law that they say allow for public access. The University says it was trying to protect the employee’s privacy.

After the student newspaper’s coverage of the Title IX-related accusations, officials changed the requirements for Morris’s position, making him ineligible for the job of newspaper advisor as of the end of the Spring 2019 semester.

The College Media Association and local media support the student newspaper. Flor-Ala printed an issue with a blank front page saying “Without a free press… this is what the paper would look like.”

The new free-speech proposal could make more officials aware of events such as these. Under the proposal, Alabama public university boards of trustees must produce an annual report for their schools that describes how administrators deal with free-speech-related incidents and “any assessments, criticism, commendations, or recommendations the board of trustees sees fit to include.” The Flor-Ala episode would be natural to include. The annual report would be publicly available and provided to the state commission on higher education and the governor’s office.

In Arizona and North Carolina, state university governing boards have already issued annual reports under the free-speech proposals adopted there.

No one can guarantee that additional exposure of free-speech incidents will change administrators’ behavior, but the Alabama proposal commits state universities to “free, robust, and uninhibited debate and deliberation by students” and includes enforcement mechanisms. Gov. Ivey’s signature on the proposal would give families, taxpayers, and lawmakers a set of policies to hold university officials to this commitment.

Jonathan Butcher is a Senior Fellow at the Goldwater Institute.



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