No Leafleting at a University Without Several Days’ Notice

The Foundation for Individual Rights in Education reports:

University of Alabama police have ordered a pro-choice student group to cease distributing informational flyers on campus in response to another group’s pro-life event, and threatened members with arrest for failing to comply with its orders….

As The Crimson White, UA’s student newspaper, reported on April 17, 2013, the student group Bama Students for Life hosted a “Genocide Awareness Project” (GAP) protest on UA’s quad on April 10 and 11. GAP protests are frequently hosted on college campuses and feature graphic, abortion-related images. Members of the Alabama Alliance for Sexual and Reproductive Justice (AASRJ) student group learned of the planned event on April 9 and decided to distribute flyers to counter GAP’s anti-abortion message.

The pro-choice students of AASRJ distributed flyers on the quad, in the vicinity of the protest, for roughly one hour on April 10 without incident. The Crimson White reports, however, that a woman complained to UA police about the content of one of the group’s flyers. UA police then ordered AARSJ to end its counter-protest and threatened to arrest two AASRJ members. One member reported, “We were then warned … [w]ithout a grounds permit, any member distributing fliers as part of AARSJ would be arrested.”

AASRJ submitted a grounds use permit request to UA in order to continue its counter-protest activities on April 11 but was informed by a UA official that the permit would not be approved in time. UA’s grounds use policy states that permits may be approved in “as few as 3 days,” but otherwise instructs that “applicants for use of other campus grounds should request permission for such use 10 working days prior to the event.”

This policy means that student groups aren’t allowed to speak on campus — whether by leafleting or in other organized ways, such as by displaying signs and the like — in any spontaneous response to pressing events. If one group organizes an event, another group can’t promptly respond to it, unless the second group somehow gets wind of the event many days before. If there’s an important and unexpected incident, at home or abroad, a group can’t spontaneously react to it, whether in anger, mourning, celebration, or what have you. And that’s true not just for massive events that can be expected to interfere with pedestrian traffic, require police protection, call for extra cleanup, or the like; it’s true even for a few students getting together to express themselves, beyond “casual recreational or social activities.” (The great bulk of student group political events indeed involve just a modest number of students, rather than a major crowd.)

I sympathize with university administrators’ need to coordinate use of shared space, and make sure that extracurricular activities don’t get in the way of curricular activities. But these kinds of advance notice permit requirements that apply even to small events strike me as unsound, on university campuses and not just off-campus.