Bankrupting Free Speech: Prohibitive Security Fees a Censorship Tool of Choice in 2009

By on December 29, 2009

It’s no surprise that of the dozens of free speech incidents FIRE encounters at universities throughout the year, many are connected to the issues grabbing headlines at the time. In the final weeks of the 2008 election season, for example, FIRE intervened at several universities that had overly restricted political speech on their campuses in an effort to maintain an appearance of neutrality. Similarly, FIRE dealt with plenty of cases arising from the buildup to and the early days of the Iraq war. Last year, FIRE encountered, time and again, situations at universities where seemingly any discussion of guns or violenceeven satiricallywas deemed unacceptable in the wake of the tragic shootings at Virginia Tech and Northern Illinois University. (This last trend continued this year with a particularly bad case at the Community College of Allegheny County.) 

A major trend FIRE spotted this year, however, doesn’t seem to fit this mold. I’m referring to the levying of excessive security fees on student groups hosting events with speakers and issues deemed too controversial by administrators. Student groups whose only "fault" was the desire to discuss current issues on their campuses were hit with fees stretching into the thousands of dollars for extra security and police protection, all based on the perceived chance that hecklers would disrupt the groups’ events, even with violence.

Consider: 

  • In February, the Objectivists Club of Berkeley (OCB), a student group at the University of California, Berkeley, was charged over $3,000 by the university to pay for security at a planned speech by Elan Journo of the Ayn Rand Institute. The group was expected to pay for up to twelve police officers to be present solely because of the controversial content of the speech"America’s stake in the Arab-Israeli conflict"and the fact that there had previously been tension between Israeli and Palestinian student groups on campus. For this, OCB was expected to pay $3,220.63.
  • Also in February, the Republican Club at the University of Massachusetts-Amherst learned that another group planned to protest an upcoming speech by conservative columnist Don Feder. In light of this, the UMass Police Department pressured the group to accept increased security fees on top of those it had already agreed to pay. Reluctantly, the Republicans agreed to pay the extra fee of $444.52. Protesters disrupted Feder’s speech anyway. 
  • In March, the University of Colorado at Boulder group Students for True Academic Freedom was billed for extra security for an event featuring Ward Churchill and William Ayers, partly on the basis of the potential for hostile audience reactions. The bill: $2,203.42.
  • In April, the University of Arizona Police Department forced UA’s College Republicans to request security for an upcoming lecture by conservative author and activist David Horowitz. A later e-mail by an administrator with the UAPD spoke volumes about its reasons for charging the group: "If you’re planning on having an event in the future which involves someone who may be controversial, please notify us so we can assess what security needs to be present." The College Republicans were charged $384.72. 

In FIRE’s letter to each of the four public universities, we reminded them of their constitutional duties, and pointed out to them what the Supreme Court had to say about this brand of censorship:

The Supreme Court addressed precisely this issue in Forsyth County v. Nationalist Movement, 505 U.S. 123, 134-135 (1992), when it struck down an ordinance in Forsyth County, Georgia, that permitted the local government to set varying fees for events based upon how much police protection the event would need. Criticizing the ordinance, the Court wrote that "[t]he fee assessed will depend on the administrator’s measure of the amount of hostility likely to be created by the speech based on its content. Those wishing to express views unpopular with bottle throwers, for example, may have to pay more for their permit." Deciding that such a determination required county administrators to "examine the content of the message that is conveyed" (citation omitted), the Court wrote that "[l]isteners’ reaction to speech is not a content-neutral basis for regulation…. Speech cannot be financially burdened, any more than it can be punished or banned, simply because it might offend a hostile mob." (Emphasis added.)

Thankfully, each of the universities refunded or revoked the extra security fees after being contacted by FIRE. The trend, however, is still distressing.

Fortunately, the student groups involved here knew to come to FIRE for help, but beyond these four cases, how many universities have gotten away with this slippery form of censorship? How many student groups, unaware of their rights, blithely accept such fees when they are meted out by their administrations in the name of "safety?" 

It is inexcusable enough for universities to let go unpunished the practice of students brandishing the "heckler’s veto" to shout down speech they do not think has a right to be heard on their campuses. By recognizing and monetizing the threat such students pose, universities succeed only in legitimizing their rowdy brand of mob censorship. In doing so, they cast their lots with the least tolerant voices in the community.

Cal, UMass, Colorado, and Arizona, under pressure from FIRE, eventually figured this out and righted the course. FIRE, of course, remains vigilant as we head into 2010. After all, censorship by draining the purse is nothing new and, despite FIRE’s ten successful years of fighting for student rights, we saw that the practice was as healthy as ever in 2009.