USA agrees to loosen restrictions on student speech in legal settlement

The University of South Alabama reached a settlement Tuesday with the Alliance Defending Freedom (ADF) in a lawsuit filed over two years ago protecting the free speech rights of pro-life students on campus.

In October 2013 and again in February 2014, a students for life (SFL) club at USA was denied permission to hold a demonstration on campus even after complying with a university official’s order to request permission 72 hours in advance. Instead, the pro-life group was told it would need to hold its demonstration in the school’s free speech zone because the event was considered “controversial” by the administration.

Students involved in SFL alleged that USA has allowed several other organizations to hold events outside of the school’s free speech zone in the past, but denied their request simply because university officials disagreed with their views.

[RELATED: University of South Alabama sued for restricting pro-life group]

A few months later, ADF filed a lawsuit against the university on SFL’s behalf, which was settled Tuesday after USA agreed to expand the free speech zone from less than one percent of campus to a vast majority.

“Universities are meant to be beacons for the free exchange of ideas. Sadly, they have too frequently become safe spaces to babysit kids who may be offended by a particular point of view,” said SFL national president Kristan Hawkins in a press release announcing the settlement. “We are pleased that the University of South Alabama will now allow its students to hear different viewpoints instead of protecting them from real-world discourse. Hopefully, other institutions of higher education will follow suit.”

[RELATED: FIRE ranks the 10 worst schools for free speech]

ADF senior counsel David Hacker ridiculed the idea of speech zones in general, arguing that public universities should be the very place where the free exchange of ideas is encouraged.

[RELATED: FIRE releases list of schools with restrictive speech policies]

“Public universities should encourage free speech, not shut it down or quarantine it to one small spot on campus,” Hacker said. “This lawsuit has ensured that University of South Alabama students can enjoy the ‘marketplace of ideas’ that a public university is supposed to be.”

USA told Campus Reform that it began revising its speech code policies in 2014, and has since expanded its free speech zones to several other areas on campus.

“The University of South Alabama is committed to the free and open exchange of ideas, and ensuring that the rights of students, employees, and guests are appropriately balanced with the safe and efficient operation of the university and its primary mission to provide teaching, research, community service, and health care,” the university said in a statement released to Campus Reform.

[RELATED: Report: Nearly half of public colleges restrict student speech]

ADF, however, vows to fight to eliminate free speech zones at the remainder of America’s top schools.

“The Constitution protects the free speech rights of everyone, not just groups or students that a few university officials prefer,” declared ADF Legal Counsel Travis Barham. “The First Amendment guarantees that students have the freedom to express themselves in the open, outdoor areas of campus, and students can now enjoy more of this liberty at the University of South Alabama. But we remain committed to eliminating so-called ‘free speech zones’ at all public colleges and universities.”

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