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Pro-life college students fight for free speech

A pro-life student group at the University of South Alabama (USA) has filed suit against the public college for limiting its First Amendment rights. The complaint, filed in federal court Aug. 22 by the Alliance Defending Freedom (ADF), argues two rules enacted by the university administration severely inhibited the ability of Students for Life USA to exercise free speech on campus. The rules specifically limited the group’s ability to construct a Cemetery to the Innocents display, a temporary memorial representing deaths from abortions.

When Students for Life USA initially requested permission to set up the display in October 2013, the administration restricted them to the campus free-speech zone at the Student Center, which totaled about 1 percent of the campus. The group argued the restriction severely limited the display’s impact. Campus policy at the time required student groups to request permission to use the free-speech zone three days prior to the event. According to the complaint, campus policy gave “unbridled discretion” to grant or deny student requests to the vice president of Student Affairs, John Smith, and the dean of students, Michael Mitchell. “These grants … created a system in which speech was reviewed without any standards, thus giving students no way to prove that a denial, restriction, or relocation of their speech was based on unconstitutional considerations,” the complaint stated.

On Aug. 8, the university adopted a new policy that, according to the complaint, offered only moderate improvement over the previous one by still limiting free speech on large portions of the campus.

“Universities are supposed to be the marketplace of ideas,” ADF senior legal counsel David Hacker said in a news release. “Free speech should not be censored or limited to a ridiculously small area on campus, nor should students need permission to exercise their constitutionally protected freedom of speech.”

USA isn’t the only public university to face lawsuits for allegedly violating the First Amendment rights of pro-life student groups. ADF filed suit against Boise State University in June for requiring a pro-life student group to post warning signs for two different events the administration deemed “controversial.” Last year, ADF also sued the University of Buffalo and Eastern Michigan University on behalf of pro-life student organizations whose free speech rights were violated.

In March of this year, Oklahoma State University agreed to pay $25,000 to settle an ADF lawsuit for inhibiting the free speech of the student group Cowboys for Life, Life Site News reported. There, the university denied a 2012 request to erect a pro-life display because it would cause students to walk through the grass and further damage the lawns even though the administration approved other requests for displays in the same area. The university later allowed a small abortion victim display if it was accompanied by warning signs for graphic content, a standard not applied to other graphic displays. The university agreed to pay damages and stripped the Department of Campus Life’s oversight authority.

Similar to the case filed against Oklahoma State University, ADF argues the USA administration restricted the speech of Students for Life USA while granting permission to other student groups in areas other than the free-speech zone. Free and spontaneous speech should mark college campuses, said ADF Senior Counsel Kevin Theriot: “We hope that the University of South Alabama will revise its policy so that its students can exercise their constitutionally protected freedoms.”

— by Courtney Crandell

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