Victory for Freedom of Speech at University of Colorado at Boulder: University Lifts Financial Burden on Students Hosting Controversial Speakers Ward Churchill and William Ayers

By on April 20, 2009

Today’s press release announces that FIRE has persuaded yet another public college to respect the First Amendment when it comes to charging high security fees for controversial speakers. In each case, the university charged additional fees for security because of the controversial nature of the speaker’s ideas. Charging every speaker (or the speaker’s hosts) the same amount for security is fine-such as charging all after-hours events for an after-hours security guard. But charging some speakers more than others for security, simply because the audience might feel offended and get unruly, is prohibited by the First Amendment.

Two years ago it was UCLA, which had forced a group to cancel its immigration debate by charging the group $15,000 for security. Berkeley capitulated last month, reducing unconstitutional security fees by thousands of dollars for a controversial speech by Elan Journo on “America’s Stake in the Arab-Israeli Conflict.” Last week, it was UMass Amherst giving back $444 for extra security for a speech hosted by the Republican Club that featured conservative writer Don Feder speaking against the idea that hate speech and hate crimes are a major problem.

And now it is the University of Colorado at Boulder, which has reversed its threat to charge excessively high security fees for a controversial event that included speeches by Ward Churchill and William Ayers. After the university threatened to bill the organizers more than $2,000 for security, FIRE intervened and got the fee reversed.

Churchill and Ayers spoke on March 5 at an event cosponsored by Students for True Academic Freedom and other CU-Boulder student groups. Prior to the event, CU-Boulder spokesman Bronson Hilliard stated that Students for True Academic Freedom would be billed for security partly on the basis of a potentially hostile audience reaction to the speakers. The police security bill was going to be $2,203.42, plus fees for parking and building security.

On March 18, FIRE wrote Interim Chancellor Phil DiStefano, 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. The relevant Supreme Court decision, Forsyth County v. Nationalist Movement, 505 U.S. 123(1992), stated, “Listeners’ 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.”

CU-Boulder replied on March 30, asking for more time to respond. On April 1, Students for True Academic Freedom leader Sean Daly e-mailed CU-Boulder Dean of Students and Associate Vice Chancellor for Student Affairs Deborah Coffin, pointing out that FIRE’s recent case at the University of California at Berkeley was successful on exactly the same principle.

Soon after, CU-Boulder relented, and Coffin confirmed that CU-Boulder would not charge any security fee for the police.

While the content of the speech at issue differs greatly in each of these four victories, anyone who stands for principle and the First Amendment must see all of these wins as good for freedom of speech in the United States. I don’t know if there is a single person in the world who would or could agree simultaneously with the main ideas that Feder, Journo, Churchill, and Ayers believe, but that’s not the point. The point is that the First Amendment protects even the speech that you hate, and that’s precisely why it is protected. We protect controversial speakers from violence because we live in a civil society, and we don’t let hecklers or violent protesters get to decide who may speak or how much they will have to pay to speak.

Sooner or later, we all find our favorite speakers, even the relatively tame ones, in the sights of censors. But we only have credibility in defending them if we acknowledge that the First Amendment protects us all equally, even those with completely opposite views.

Schools: University of Colorado at Boulder Cases: University of Colorado at Boulder: Prohibitive Security Fee Charged for Controversial Speakers