A pro-life student organization at the University of South Alabama filed a complaint in federal court April 4 against several university leaders including brand new President Tony Waldrop.
The group, Students for Life USA, claims the university violated their First and 14th Amendment rights by not allowing them to display a “cemetery of innocents” outside of the campus’ pre-approved “free speech” zone.
A cemetery of innocents consists of small crosses placed in the ground in a confined area to represent lives lost due to abortion. The activity would have required more room than the University’s 3,600-square-foot “free speech” zone could accommodate.
The complaint names Waldrop as a defendant as well as Vice President of Student Affairs John Smith, Assistant Vice President of Student Affairs Michael Mitchell and John Steadman, Dean of the College of Engineering.
In October of 2013, Students for Life USA requested permission to host a cemetery of innocents in an empty lot at the corner of University Boulevard and Old Shell Road.
The complaint maintains employees of USA’s maintenance department told representatives of Students for Life the University did not own the land, which was contrary to what officials from the city of Mobile told the students.
In addition to the extra space, the group wanted to use the area near Old Shell Road to share their message not only with students, but also with the greater Mobile community.
USA’s policy states “demonstrations, speeches, and debates will be held around the Student Center unless the Vice President for Academic Affairs is able to coordinate another appropriate campus location no less than three working days prior to the event.”
Students for Life also submitted two applications between October of 2013 and February of 2014 to use an area adjacent to Shelby Hall, which houses the university’s College of Engineering.
Steadman, acting as dean of the College of Engineering, denied both the group’s applications because the university’s polices give him authority to approve requests to use the engineering facilities.
In an email to Students for Life mentioned in the complaint, Steadman said he did so because the group “advocates for a position that involves political and social controversy, and placing the crosses next to Shelby Hall would create the impression that the university endorsed the speech.
Pro-life and religious groups at universities around the state and country have displayed cemeteries of innocents, even those with designated “free speech” areas. Many universities have also created free speech areas.
“If we have a student group that wants to do something like that, they would typically file a space reservation form and we would usually approve it,” said Barbara Patterson, Director of Student Involvement at Troy University. “Sometimes an organization will want to use a space they can’t get, and we’ll move it to some other area. We try to very hard to work with student groups.”
Troy has hosted similar ceremonies in the past, including a cemetery of innocent and a display of American flags on the anniversary of Sept. 11, 2001, both of which took place on the school’s academic quad.
Patterson did say the approval of a space reservation form depends on the nature of the event and whether it’s appropriate for the desired area.
USA requires both individual students and student organizations to obtain a permit three days in advance to speak on campus, which the complaint claims chills protected student speech and disables the ability of students speak on campus about recent and unfolding events.
In addition to Shelby Hall and the lot by Old Shell Road, campus officials also denied a request from the student group to use a grassy area within a traffic circle that connects several of the university’s main roads. According to the complaint, student organizations regularly hang large banners and signs, called sheet signs, from trees in the circle.
Fraternity, sorority and worships group activities are often displayed there.
It also states that other student organizations, an engineering club and the Political Science Club, have held events outside the “free speech” zone.
Attempts to contact the administration at USA were initially unsuccessful.
However, the complaint itself describes an attempt made by USA to work with organization.
Rachel Bolden, assistant director of USA’s students center, reportedly told members of the organization they could use the grassy area around the student center for their cemetery of innocents despite it being outside of the designated “free speech” zone.
Students for Life USA maintains its members were prevented from discussing prolife, political and religious topics on campus due to fear of arrest or punishment from the administration. The organization also claims it was treated differently when compared to similar student organizations because it was denied an opportunity to speak where other organizations had spoken or made displays in the past.
The plaintiffs claim to have suffered economic injury and irreparable harm, and the organization is seeking a declaration from the University of South Alabama stating it violated the students’ First and 14th Amendment rights.
Additionally, plaintiff is seeking damages in an amount to be determined by the court, which includes the costs associated of the lawsuit and any applicable attorney’s fees.
Locally attorneys Norman J. Gale and Norman J. Gale, Jr. are representing Students for Life USA along with attorneys David A. Cortman, Kevin H. Theriot, Travis C. Barham and David J. Hacker with the Alliance Defending Freedom.
Both Gale and the Alliance Defending Freedom were contacted but choose not to comment.