FIRE, the American Civil Liberties Union of Idaho (ACLU-ID), and the Idaho Freedom Foundation (IFF) all wrote to Boise State University (BSU) recently to voice concerns about the institution’s decision to charge the campus chapter of Young Americans for Liberty (YAL) an unconstitutional security fee for hosting a presentation by gun rights activist and successful Supreme Court litigant Dick Heller. Last week, BSU rescinded its invoice to YAL for $465, but Vice President and General Counsel Kevin D. Satterlee maintains that having security staff at the event “was the only rational response” to one non-student’s Facebook post indicating that he intended to bring his weapon to the event.
As FIRE explained in our letter to BSU, charging YAL security fees because of an outside community member’s plans to bring a weapon into the event establishes a “heckler’s veto,” whereby anyone who dislikes a planned event can effectively shut it down (or at least raise the cost to the planning organization substantially) by threatening to cause a disturbance. At no point did YAL itself pose a threat—in fact, an event organizer explicitly instructed the Facebook commenter that his plans were in violation of BSU policy. Further, and just as problematically, BSU’s policies fail to establish content-neutral guidelines for determining what campus events will require extra security, leaving the door wide open for administrators to burden certain events but not others based on the viewpoints that might be expressed.
It is unfortunate, therefore, that BSU is refusing to change its policies to prevent similar occurrences in the future and protect the rights to freedom of expression and peaceful assembly that it promises its students—and that it is legally bound to provide as a public university.
According to Boise Weekly reporter Jessica Murri, Satterlee “told the AP that not providing extra security would’ve been considered negligence,” and the university saddled YAL with the costs in order not to burden other students or taxpayers. It is debatable whether the act of someone carrying a weapon into an event—apparently as a political statement, and not to be actually used—constitutes a risk significant enough to create liability for negligence. But even if BSU had determined that there was a credible threat, it was obligated to deal with that threat in a way that did not burden YAL, an innocent party, for the viewpoints to be expressed at the event.
Many topics have the potential to inspire disruptive reactions; the most important debates that happen on campus are often among the most contentious ones. The BSU administration may not place blame on a party other than those who actually are alleged to pose a threat, and it particularly may not do so when that action will deter students from planning events relating to contentious issues.
Satterlee writes in his letter to IFF, ACLU-ID, and FIRE that BSU “deeply values the open exchange of ideas and will not limit speech using security expenses as a method to chill or to depress speech or expression.” If that is true, BSU must enact written policies that make clear that student groups will not be forced to pay hundreds of dollars for a community member’s response to the group’s viewpoint.