News - March 1996

Alabama Judge clears the way for gay students' conference

MONTGOMERY, Ala. -- A federal judge in Alabama Feb. 14 paved the way for a student conference on lesbian and gay issues to take place, putting an end to repeated efforts by state officials to cancel or curtail the meeting.

The ruling comes two weeks after the judge, Myron H. Thompson, of the United States District Court in Montgomery, Ala., struck down a 1992 state law barring gay student groups from university campuses, calling the statute "naked viewpoint discrimination" in violation of the First Amendment and wholly unenforceable.

Despite that strongly-worded ruling, state Attorney General Jeff Sessions went back to court on Feb. 8th to try to use the statute to block the Southeast Lesbian, Gay and Bisexual College Conference from taking place at the University of Alabama.

In a 13-page order, Judge Thompson today denied that request, saying that the attorney general "could not come up with a single prospective application of the statute that would not unconstitutionally infringe upon [the students'] right to exercise free speech."

The American Civil Liberties Union, which brought the challenge to the statute, hailed the decision. "It is astonishing that state officials are so afraid of students getting together and talking," said Ruth E. Harlow, Associate Director of the ACLU's Lesbian and Gay Rights Project.

"This ruling will put an end to their misguided efforts to stop an educational conference," continued Harlow, who had argued against Session's request via telephone conference on Feb. 12th with Judge Thompson and a lawyer from the attorney general's office.

The ACLU had also filed a motion to prevent Sessions from taking future action against the conference, which Judge Thompson said was unnecessary "at this time," given the attorney general's assurance that "he will act in accordance with the court's judgment."

The Feb. 16-17 conference, sponsored by the Gay Lesbian Bisexual Alliance of the University of Alabama in Tuscaloosa, is expected to draw hundreds of students from throughout the region to discuss topics ranging from gay Southern history and hate crimes, to AIDS research and religion.

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