Students at the University of Alabama were recently denied the opportunity to record a “Harlem Shake” video on their campus by overzealous campus police.
University police shut down the video shoot and ticketed Nojan Radfar, a freshman at the University of Alabama, for not having a permit, since all student organizations need a permit to hold an event on campus property.
But Radfar isn’t in a student organization. That’s problematic because at the University of Alabama, individual students or unrecognized groups of students cannot apply for a permit, but must be sponsored by a department or student organization.
As though ticketing Radfar for the innocuous video shoot was not enough, the university police allegedly told him to keep his mouth shut about the incident.
“They told me not to talk to the press,” Radfar said. “As of right now, I just have a ticket, but I’m worried I could be expelled.”
If the University of Alabama Police Department told Radfar not to talk to the press, that is unconscionable. The university police not only attempted to restrict Radfar from speaking about the incident, but also tried to block student media from covering the incident.
In a 2010 interview, University of Alabama spokeswoman Cathy Andreen talked to The Crimson White, the University of Alabama’s student newspaper, about why permits are required to hold events on campus.
“We use the Ground Use Permit process to ensure that students, visitors and guests who want to hold events, speeches, rallies or demonstrations on our campus can do so without endangering the safety of our students and the campus community,” Andreen said. “We also want to ensure these events occur without disrupting the university’s ability to educate our students and conduct our daily operations.”
While the safety of the students is extremely important, the university is public, meaning that students have a right of the people to peaceably assemble, as laid out in the First Amendment.
A “Harlem Shake” video might not count as a form of political expression, but it is nevertheless peaceable assembly and so it needs to be protected. When any government authority tries to bar people from exercising their freedoms, that is dangerous, regardless of the context.
While a private university might have some grounds for curtailing assemblies of students since they are on private property, public universities do not have that argument, and they should not have the right to make decisions or policies that affect students’ First Amendment rights.
Public universities reside on government-owned land, are run and administered by government employees and receive government funding. Public universities are an arm of the government. Can you imagine the government requiring permits to assemble at a public park, or in front of a courthouse?
Although larger events also require permits on the UA campus, our campus police evidently have more common sense than the University of Alabama’s police, and do not attempt to shut down an innocent YouTube video shoot.
In fact, the UA has shown a commitment to the First Amendment on campus. Many people might be offended by the diatribes of preachers on the UA Mall, yet they are allowed to speak.
The University of Alabama should reconsider its attitude toward the rights of its students. This is about more than the “Harlem Shake.”
—David Weissman is a journalism junior. He can be reached at email@example.com or on Twitter via @WildcatOpinions.