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Is University Trampling Constitutional Rights in the Wake of Shootings

By       Message Roger Shuler     Permalink
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Cross Posted at Legal Schnauzer
Officials at the University of Alabama in Huntsville (UAH) have tried to separate student leaders from a prominent alumnus who spoke out about the school's poor work environment following recent fatal shootings on the campus.

Samuel Parks, a former student-body president who graduated in May 2009, says administrators have instructed him not to communicate with current student leaders. That came after Parks wrote a letter to the editor, titled "UAH Deserves Some Blame," about the shootings that left three people dead and three others injured. UAH neuroscientist Amy Bishop has been charged in the case, and news reports indicate the shootings were sparked by the university's decision to deny Bishop tenure.

Parks' concerns about UAH stem partly from a 2007 episode where the university investigated him and another student after they helped pass a resolution critical of the UAH computer network and services. The case sparked intervention from the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education (FIRE), an organization that promotes free speech and due process on college campuses.

In his letter to the editor, Parks called the shootings a "heinous crime," but added:
By routinely treating the faculty and staff as expendable livestock, and by regarding the students as blank checks ripe for cashing, the university has spawned an atmosphere of doubt, fear and animosity. Such conditions will always breed radical responses from the chronically oppressed.

Parks' letter apparently struck a nerve with the UAH administration, led by President David B. Williams. Says Parks:

Since my graduation last May, I have volunteered with the student government to pass along some of the institutional knowledge I gleaned during my career as a student. After the publication of the letter in the Huntsville Times, the administration forbid me from communicating with any of the current student leaders. They cited an unwillingness to perpetuate my "dissension."

Thus further evidencing the larger problem with the system.

In the 2007 case, Parks and fellow student Donald Ganiere were investigated for roughly three weeks after they raised concerns about the university's computer services. A resolution they authored was passed unanimously by the Student Government Association (SGA). A few weeks later, Parks and Ganiere found themselves under investigation.

FIRE found that situation unacceptable. In a letter to Williams dated December 5, 2007, FIRE representative Adam Kissel said:

This situation is both legally and morally unacceptable. The First Amendment protects citizens from punishment for engaging in protected expression and for petitioning for the redress of grievances-precisely what the SGA resolution authored by Ganiere meant to accomplish. As a public university, UAH is bound to uphold these constitutional protections. As the Supreme Court noted in Healy v. James, 408 U.S. 169, 180 (1972), "[s]tate colleges and universities are not enclaves immune from the sweep of the First Amendment;" indeed, "[t]he vigilant protection of constitutional freedoms is nowhere more vital than in the community of American schools." It is a particularly grievous violation of this principle when, as in this case, students are investigated for exercising their right to petition for the redress of grievances. Not only is this right so important that it is included in the First Amendment along with freedom of speech and religious liberty, but the lack of this right directly contributed to the American Revolution itself. The ability to ask the government to change its behavior or policies without fear of punishment is one of the crucial distinctions between a free and an unfree society.

The FIRE case indicates that UAH has had problems with free-speech issues before. Now it appears the administration is trying to interfere with the right to free association.

Perhaps Samuel Parks had solid reasons for stating that UAH shared some blame for conditions that led to a campus tragedy.


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I live in Birmingham, Alabama, and work in higher education. I became interested in justice-related issues after experiencing gross judicial corruption in Alabama state courts. This corruption has a strong political component. The corrupt judges are (more...)

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