On Monday, students at the University of Alabama who tried to film a Harlem Shake video on the school’s quad learned they couldn’t gather without a permit from the university, according to reports in The Crimson White, Alabama’s student newspaper. The school requires all groups to apply for a grounds use permit for events, speeches, rallies or protests on campus, and it can take up to 10 days for the school to approve permits.
The large crowd that gathered was told by campus police to disperse, and the student who organized the event was given a ticket, The Crimson White reports. In addition, the student organizer said he was told not to talk to the press.
There’s a couple of issues here of concern for First Amendment advocates — free speech zones or codes on campus that dictate when and where students can speak freely, and an alleged gag order on a student not to speak.
Most schools have policies similar to the University of Alabama, in which they dictate when and where students can gather to speak. The folks at FIRE, the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education, have documented numerous legally questionable speech codes across the country. Some, like Alabama, require students to obtain permits in advance. Some set aside a particular spot where protests can occur. As our student media guide to campus ‘free speech zones’ explains, these policies often limit student speech.
Today, The Crimson White published a strongly worded editorial criticizing the school’s policy, calling it an “antiquated policy that stifles free speech and racial, organizational and cultural integration on this campus.” It went on:
The freedom to assemble is protected by the First Amendment of the Constitution of the United States precisely because a government — or University — has little choice but to listen to thousands of people occupying a space. Look no further than this state’s very own civil rights history as proof of the power of a peaceful assembly.
As far as the student organizer’s statement that he was told not to talk with the media about the event, as SPLC Executive Director Frank LoMonte pointed out in our most recent issue of the Report, at a public institution like the University of Alabama, schools have very little say legally over what students say:
At a public college or university, students speaking on campus during the school day have at least the Tinker level of protection. A few courts have gone further and equated college students’ rights with the rights of non-student citizens speaking outside the campus setting – meaning that the government will almost never be able to justify restricting speech on the basis of its content.
University of Alabama students aren’t the only ones who have seen pushback from administrators over Harlem Shake videos. This week, 13 Pennsylvania students were suspended for filming their own version in a school classroom. According to the Associated Press, the school’s principal said the students were suspended because the video was “very graphic and very vulgar.”
SPLC attorney Adam Goldstein said the school’s reactions at both the University of Alabama and in Pennsylvania “seem hysterical and regressive” but said students shouldn’t “underestimate the raw stupidity” of school administrators. He suggests that students who want to make Harlem Shake and other parody videos do so off-campus, on their own time and with their own equipment.
“If there’s a way to do it without the school or its facilities being involved, I’d choose that way, because you can’t anticipate what kind of reaction you’re going to get from administrators,” Goldstein said.