Four FIRE Cases on Security Fees Top Sunday’s San Francisco Chronicle

By March 31, 2009

Page A-1 of Sunday’s San Francisco Chronicle features four of FIRE’s cases on unacceptably high security fees for controversial speakers. In each case, the potential reaction of the audience was used to assess security fees and charge them to the host. But as the Supreme Court wrote in Forsyth County v. Nationalist Movement (1992), “Speech cannot be financially burdened, any more than it can be punished or banned, simply because it might offend a hostile mob.”

In the article, Bob Egelko points out that both Berkeley and UCLA, two of the three top-ranked schools in U.S. News & World Report, acknowledged this principle after FIRE brought the issue to their attention. We are still waiting to hear from the University of Colorado at Boulder and from University of Massachusetts Amherst, which added more than $400 to the security charges for a speech by conservative writer Don Feder after it became known that protesters planned to attend the event.

CU-Boulder, for its part, doesn’t yet seem to get the point. According to Egelko’s article:

University spokesman Bronson Hilliard said about 1,100 people attended the event under tight security, which included pat-downs at the entrance, and behaved peacefully. He said university officials have planned to bill the sponsors about $2,700, but listened to the students’ objections and have not made a final decision.

“There’s no relationship between the cost of the security and the content of the speaker,” Hilliard said. He said police consider the likely audience reaction when making security plans and should be able to pass along those costs to event organizers.

“What our law enforcement officials look at is, are we going to have a full venue and might we have audience members who disagree with the message?” Hilliard said. “That’s a basic security planning protocol.”

This is mistaken. Although Hilliard is right that there should be “no relationship between the cost of the security and the content of the speaker,” the Forsyth decision makes eminently clear that charging extra security fees because of “audience members who disagree with the message” is in fact a burden on the message. When CU-Boulder determines that it ought to provide the extra security, it cannot pass along the extra costs to the speaker or the speaker’s hosts.

Stay tuned for the response from UMass Amherst.

Schools: Boston College University of Massachusetts – Amherst University of Colorado at Boulder University of California, Los Angeles University of California, Berkeley Cases: University of Massachusetts Amherst: Student Group Charged Unconstitutional Security Fee for Controversial Speaker University of Colorado at Boulder: Prohibitive Security Fee Charged for Controversial Speakers University of California at Berkeley: Prohibitive Security Fee Charged for Controversial Speaker