The University of Wisconsin Needs to Drop the Security Fee—Permanently

By December 13, 2007

The Wisconsin State Journal reports that on October 22, the College Republicans at the University of Wisconsin–Madison hosted a speech by political pundit David Horowitz. The university intended to charge the student group $1,300 in security fees, but according to The Badger Herald, ended up covering the fee for the group when the group demonstrated that it simply couldn’t pay.

To levy additional charges on student groups for controversial speech unconstitutionally hinders the expression of that speech. As the Supreme Court wrote in Forsyth County v. Nationalist Movement (1992), “[s]peech cannot be financially burdened, any more than it can be punished or banned, simply because it might offend a hostile mob.” Otherwise, individuals opposed to certain speech need only threaten disruption to silence views they dislike. It gives a heckler’s veto to the most hostile and least tolerant members of the campus community.

The Journal Times had an excellent editorial yesterday on the issue. While the speech of conservatives was threatened in the above circumstance, “[t]he fundamental principle at stake supersedes political ideology…and both sides should unite on this issue.” The Badger Herald records an opponent of Horowitz’s speech, University of Wisconsin College Democrats Chair Oliver Kiefer, adroitly making this point, “For me to know that my free speech will be protected, everyone else’s free speech should also be protected.” In 2005, two student groups at the University of Wisconsin–Whitewater brought in Colorado Professor Ward Churchill and were charged over $6,000 in security costs. Such prohibitively high costs could have shut down the event. The editorial concludes that controversial ideas should not be discouraged by any means, because the discussion aroused by such ideas is essential to scouring away bad ideas and calcifying good ideas:

Universities are intended to be places where people are exposed to new ideas. Sometimes those ideas are distasteful, as in the case of Churchill or Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, who appeared at Columbia University, yet these ideas need to be heard. It is our constitutional principle that people be able to speak their minds, and there is a solid practical reason behind that principle: Ideas look different in the strong light of free debate. Stupid ideas wilt; good ones grow. That’s why so many nations—Iran, for example—have regimes which stifle free speech. They fear the wilting of the ideas which provide their power.

This situation is similar to one at the University of Wisconsin–Milwaukee that FIRE reported on last month. The university dropped a high security fee of $2,500 for a conservative group hosting a controversial speech by Walid Shoebat. Both universities were right to either reduce or cover the fee, although it would be better if the fee didn’t exist at all. The Journal Times offers a solution to cover security funds for the University of Wisconsin System:

A solution to the university dilemma lies in a simple policy change: the UW System should end extra security charges for speakers who come at the invitation of a university or its affiliated student groups. Perhaps there should be an extra student fee to help build a pool of money for extra security, but a total of about $27,000 in 10 years is a pittance which the system could easily cover on its own. It would be a very small price for advancing the principle of free speech on which universities are built.

Schools: University of Wisconsin – Madison