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Pro-Life Students Could Be Punished Under Vague New ‘Solicitation’ Policy, Suit Says

Students for Life USA alone denied access to ‘grassy, park-like areas’ for its ‘cemetery of innocents’

A pro-life group at the University of South Alabama is suing for the right to demonstrate in a broader area than the campus will allow, asking to be treated no differently than a sorority or group of engineering students.

Though the school recently revised its “solicitation” policy in an apparent bid to pacify the students, they say the changes could still subject them to punishment for protesting in the wrong area.

Students for Life USA, represented by the Alliance Defending Freedom, filed an amended complaint Aug. 22 against the school for infringing its First and Fourteenth Amendment rights.

The group filed its original suit in April, FOX10 News reported. Students claimed the university uses a capricious system to grant speech opportunities to various student groups.

The original solicitation policy relegated student groups to a small square, about 0.01 percent of the school’s property, unless the vice president of student affairs “in his discretion” allowed them to use another area of campus, said the amended filing in the U.S. District Court in Mobile. It also required them to get a permit three days ahead of their planned speech.

In October and February, administrators repeatedly refused Students for Life USA’s requests to set up a “cemetery of innocents” – a display of crosses representing “lives lost due to abortions” – in an area outside the designated free speech zone that is more visible from off campus. One administrator allegedly justified the restriction by saying the group’s message “involves political and social controversy.”

einstein-alabama.faunggsphoto.flickrThe group said other student organizations frequently had unfettered access to the “grassy, park-like areas” on the edge of campus for advertising and entertainment purposes.

Though the school expanded its free speech zones and scrapped the permit requirement in a policy update a month ago, it continued blocking the group from demonstrating and hanging signs on the public sidewalks that surrounded the university.

The group said “it is unclear where exactly the perimeter ends on campus” under the revised policy – meaning that administrators have “the discretion to declare” that students are violating the perimeter restriction and punish them, the amended filing alleges.

The university has violated the group’s First Amendment rights by denying “comprehensive protection” to its speech on campus, including access to sidewalks that are “designated public fora,” the suit states.

The Fourteenth Amendment right to due process means “the government may not regulate speech based on policies that permit arbitrary, discriminatory, and overzealous enforcement” and “may not regulate speech based on policies that cause persons of common intelligence to guess at their meaning and differ as to their application,” according to the suit.

The “marketplace of ideas” on campus “depends on free debate between students—debate that is spontaneous, ubiquitous, and often anonymous—and is carried out through spoken word, flyers, signs, and displays,” David Hacker, director of the Alliance Defending Freedom’s university project, said in a press release.

The Foundation for Individual Rights in Education pointed to both the original and revised solicitation policy’s wide discretion for administrators, in a blog post last week.

The original policy “does not indicate by what standards or within what timeline administrators must determine who receives a permit and who doesn’t,” while the revised policy encourages student groups to “choose not to demonstrate in certain areas rather than risk punishment,” the post said.

College Fix contributor TJ Jan is a student at Seattle Pacific University.

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IMAGES: Beth Rankin/Flickr, faungg’s photo/Flickr

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About the Author
TJ Jan -- Seattle Pacific University.