Victory for Freedom of Speech at University of Arizona: Refund of Security Fee for Controversial Speaker

By on July 6, 2009

Today’s press release announces yet another FIRE victory on behalf of a student group unfairly burdened with the cost of bringing controversial speakers to campus.

Late last week, FIRE learned that the University of Arizona was reversing its decision to charge the College Republicans $384.72 in extra security fees for an event featuring author and conservative activist David Horowitz. As FIRE has reminded America’s universities time and again throughout our ten-year existence, charging speakers or their student hosts for extra security fees solely because they may provoke hostile reactions from audience members affixes a price tag to protected speech and grants a "heckler’s veto" to the least tolerant members of the campus community. Such a result is in direct violation of the First Amendment.

The College Republicans’ troubles began a few days before Horowitz’s scheduled April 7 speaking engagement, when the Dean of Students Office contacted the University of Arizona Police Department (UAPD) regarding security for the event. On April 3, UAPD Commander Robert Sommerfeld informed College Republicans President Ryan Ellison that if the group did not request two UAPD officers for security at the event, he would recommend that the event be shut down. In order to avoid having the event canceled, the College Republicans acceded to the UAPD’s demand.

The event proceeded without any problems, and on April 19 the group received an invoice of $384.72 for the security. In a June 8 e-mail from Anjelica Yrigoyen, Special Event Coordinator for the UAPD, to the College Republicans, Yrigoyen specifically linked the security fee to the controversial nature of the event, telling them: "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."

On June 10, FIRE wrote University of Arizona President Robert N. Shelton, pointing out that any requirement that student organizations hosting controversial events pay for extra security is unconstitutional because it affixes a price tag to events on the basis of their expressive content. FIRE cited the Supreme Court’s decision in Forsyth County v. Nationalist Movement, 505 U.S. 123 (1992) which held 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." Last week, Commander Sommerfeld and Chief of Police Anthony Daykin informed College Republicans Secretary Jessica Hermann that the university had "decided to absorb" the full cost of the security.

Arizona is the latest university to recognize the Forsyth precedent and refund excessive security fees after being reminded of its constitutional obligations by FIRE. Already this year the University of Colorado at Boulder reversed its decision to charge more than $2,000 dollars in extra security fees to student groups hosting an event featuring Ward Churchill and William Ayers; the University of Massachusetts at Amherst refunded $444 to the College Republicans following a lecture on hate speech and hate crimes by conservative columnist Don Feder; and the University of California, Berkeley reduced by thousands of dollars its security fee for a speech by Elan Journo on "America’s Stake in the Arab-Israeli Conflict." One by one, universities are remembering their duty to protect controversial speech, rather than unduly burdening it or letting it be shouted down, and that those who fulfill the important task of bringing dissenting viewpoints to the university must be protected from those who respond to dissent with violence or disruption.

We’re pleased to be posting this victory to our new website only hours after taking it online. FIRE will be watching these universities to make sure they protect the rights of all expressive organizations so that no speech, no matter how unpopular, is unduly burdened for fear that some may find it offensive.

Let Arizona President Robert N. Shelton know what you think by contacting him at robert.shelton@arizona.edu or at 520-621-5511.

Schools: University of Arizona University of Massachusetts – Amherst University of Colorado at Boulder University of California, Berkeley Cases: University of Arizona: Unconstitutional Security Fee Charged for Speech by University Critic