Nonprofit civil liberties group the Foundation for Individual Rights and Expression (FIRE) rated two public four-year schools in Alabama "red" for having some of the most restrictive speech codes in the country.

Of the 13 public four-year schools in the state, 10 were labeled "yellow." Only one received a "green" score.

FIRE, formerly known as the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education, used to focus exclusively on defending free speech on campus. However, the organization underwent a $75 million expansion to also focus on First Amendment advocacy elsewhere. 

Nevertheless, FIRE still maintains a database of free speech complaints from universities and evaluates the institutions' speech codes.

The Alabama Free Speech Act (AFSA) went into effect in 2021. It states that trustees at public Alabama campuses must adopt policies on free expression that allow students, administrators and faculty to take positions on controversial topics and not prohibit the use of outdoor space on campus for free speech purposes, among other requirements.

Even with the AFSA, FIRE pointed out how Alabama schools can still restrict the free speech of their students and faculty.

Schools with a 'red' rating 

Troy University and Alabama A&M University received "red" scores from FIRE. According to FIRE, each school has at least one policy that "substantially restricts freedom of speech."

Specific sections of Troy's student handbook received "red" rankings, including its housing and residence policy, policy on harassment and discrimination and technology use policy. FIRE cited problems with how the policies define harassment, sexual harassment and "cruelty, obscenity, crudity and offensiveness."

FIRE included just one case from Troy from 2005 when Troy was one of several universities sued by FIRE around that time. FIRE charged Troy with enacting harsh punishments for what they called "indecent expression" or "any activity that creates a mentally abusive, oppressive, or harmful situation for another." The lawsuit also charged Troy with a breach of contract, unlawful conditions placed on the receipt of state benefits and denial of due process and equal protection of the law.

The case was marked a "FIRE Victory" on FIRE's website.

FIRE did not include a recent incident at Troy covered by 1819 News in which Troy trustees attempted to "vet" research at a free-market think tank associated with the university, citing complaints from Alabama Power and the Business Council of Alabama (BCA) about comments made at an event hosted by the think tank that was critical of economic incentive programs, according to leaked emails.

FIRE gave Alabama A&M a "red" score for its definition of sexual harassment, which includes "sexual overtones that the victim deems offensive" and "unsolicited, deliberate or repeated sexual flirtation, advances or propositions." It also cited Alabama A&M's definition of harassment in its Non-Discrimination and Anti-Harassment Policy and Responsible Use of University Computing and Electronic Communications Resources policy. 

In 2019, FIRE ranked Alabama A&M as one of its "10 Worst Colleges For Free Speech," along with the University of North Alabama (UNA), which has since earned a "yellow" ranking.

Schools with a 'yellow' rating

The University of Alabama Birmingham (UAB), the University of Alabama (UA), the University of South Alabama (USA), the University of Montevallo, the University of West Alabama (UWA), the University of North Alabama (UNA), the University of Alabama Huntsville (UAH), Alabama State University (ASU), Auburn University Montgomery (AUM) and Jacksonville State University (JSU) were all rated "yellow."

Recently, UAH settled a lawsuit with the Alabama Center for Law and Liberty (ACLL) and the Alliance Defending Freedom (ADF) over a speech policy that limits most student speech to small "speech zones" and requires that students obtain permits to speak on campus three business days in advance. The university agreed to reverse the policy as part of the settlement. 

Though not cited by FIRE, a former UA professor claimed he received pushback from the university for raising questions about the efficacy of the university's diversity, equity and inclusion (DEI) policies. 

Alabama's only 'green' school

Of all 13 Alabama public universities, Auburn University was the only school to receive a "green" score. Auburn worked with FIRE in 2018 to revisit several speech codes and obtain one of the highest ratings for free speech in the country. 

Currently, FIRE ranks Auburn as the 22nd best college for free speech in the country.

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