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Lawsuit against U. of Alabama challenges school’s speech permit policies

The University of Alabama Young Americans for Liberty chapter has filed a lawsuit alleging the school’s policies requiring permits to speak on campus are a violation of the group’s First Amendment right to freedom of speech.

According to the lawsuit, the Alabama administration currently enforces a rule that requires students to receive official approval from the university five days before engaging in expressive activities on campus.

“Students don’t need a permit to speak freely on a public campus,” said Young Americans for Liberty Director of Free Speech JP Kirby. “And they don’t give up their constitutionally protected freedoms when they step onto campus or hold a specific viewpoint.”

In the lawsuit, YAL expresses an interest in taking part in a number of free speech activities, “including flyers, signs, peaceful demonstrations, hosting tables with information, inviting speakers to campus, and talking with fellow students about the natural rights of life, liberty, and property, among other things.”

The lawsuit notes that while engaging in these activities, YAL “will discuss political, religious, social, cultural, and moral issues and ideas.”

The group is being represented by the Washington D.C.-based Alliance Defending Freedom, which works to protect free speech on college campuses.

“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 alleges the school’s speech permitting framework runs afoul of the Campus Free Speech Act passed by the state legislature in June 2019. According to the new law, which took effect in July 2020, “the outdoor areas of a public institution of higher education shall be deemed to be a forum for members of the campus community, and the institution shall not create free speech zones or other designated outdoor areas of campus in order to limit or prohibit protected expressive activities.”

The group argues a five-day notification period before engaging in expressive activities is a violation of the law, even though the school policy allows for exemptions based on a message’s content (recent news or events) or its manner (distributing print literature).

“There is no logic to these exemptions,” the lawsuit reads, adding the campus “recently quarantined student expression to small speech zones.”

“The prior permission requirement, the exemptions to it, and the speech zones are an affront to the Campus Free Speech Act and the Alabama Constitution,” the group says in the court filing.

In June 2020, the University of Alabama trustees passed a resolution that, on its face, protected free speech on campus. Yet YAL alleges a caveat within the resolution runs afoul of the state free expression law.

Under the resolution, the university “is committed to free and open inquiry and expression for members of its campus communities.” But then it adds the caveat, “Except as limitations on that freedom are appropriate to the functioning of the campuses and permissible under the First Amendment to the Constitution of the United States.”

The lawsuit argues the resolution then exploits this loophole by stating “the Board and each of its campuses may reasonably regulate the time, place, and manner of expression in a viewpoint-neutral manner to ensure that [the University System’s] interests are protected and that expression does not disrupt the ordinary activities of the institution.”

“In response to an Act prohibiting prior permission requirements and speech zones, the University reaffirmed its prior permission requirements and added speech zones,” the lawsuit alleges.

Young Americans for Liberty has around 500 chapters on college campuses throughout the country.

MORE: College pays censored pro-life students $25,000, ditches free speech zones to settle lawsuit

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