Victory for Open Expression at UCLA, but Questions about New Policy Remain

By on March 29, 2007

FIRE announces today that UCLA has abandoned its requirement that student organizations pay prohibitively large sums of money for heightened security at events that might spark controversy on campus.
 
UCLA’s Objectivist group Liberty, Objectivity, Greed, Individualism, Capitalism (L.O.G.I.C.) attempted to host a debate on immigration in early February between open immigration advocate Yaron Brook, President of the Ayn Rand Institute, and Carl Braun, Executive Director of the Minuteman Civil Defense Corps of California, an opponent of illegal immigration. L.O.G.I.C. as a group agrees with Brook’s position on immigration, but wanted to hold an open forum on the topic so that both sides could make their case.
 
A few days before the debate was scheduled to occur, UCLA’s Students for a Democratic Society posted an online ad stating their intention to protest the debate. One student reportedly even wrote, “let’s do what they did at Columbia and shut it down,” referring to the students who disrupted an appearance at Columbia last October by Minuteman Project founder Jim Gilchrist.
 
UCLA’s reaction to this impending protest was to force L.O.G.I.C. to pay up to $15,000 for additional security guards to keep peace on campus during the event. UCLA apparently has no policy dictating how to handle such scenarios, but the Center for Student Programming’s Mike Cohn told the Daily Bruin on February 7 that, “[t]he protest is involved with [L.O.G.I.C.’s] event. They have to ensure that their event is safe for everybody. If they choose to bring speakers that are controversial, then they have to be responsible for that.” L.O.G.I.C.’s leader, Arthur Lechtholz-Zey, says that at a meeting held on February 4, administrators struck a similar note when they said that L.O.G.I.C. was responsible for anything that happened inside the event and for whatever protests or violence erupted in reaction to the event. Faced with the crisis of securing up to $15,000 and 46 additional security guards, L.O.G.I.C. was forced to cancel the debate.
 
FIRE immediately wrote to UCLA to impress upon administrators that it is unconstitutional to make students pay high costs for security if their events are controversial. FIRE wrote that the Supreme Court settled just this issue in Forsyth County v. Nationalist Movement, 505 U.S. 123 (1992). Rarely does a FIRE case so closely mirror a case addressed by the Supreme Court, but in Forsyth, the Court struck down an ordinance that permitted the local government to set varying fees for events based upon how much police protection the event would need. The Court wrote, “[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.]
 
FIRE also wrote that “by holding student organizations hosting expressive events responsible for whatever disruptive activity results from those events, UCLA grants a ‘heckler’s veto’ to the most disruptive members of the university community. Protestors wishing to shut down speech with which they disagree merely have to threaten to protest, and student groups not able to furnish thousands of dollars will be forced to cancel their events.” UCLA Professor and First Amendment expert Eugene Volokh agreed, writing on his blog, The Volokh Conspiracy, “[s]hould the university let the thugs drive debate on important and controversial issues off the university campus? I think the answer is that it should not.”
 
Abrams seems to have been convinced by FIRE’s arguments, because in a letter on February 26, he wrote that UCLA “understands its obligation to bear the reasonable security costs relating to demonstrations that might result in response to controversial speech. It was not appropriate for campus representatives to suggest that the student group would be obligated to pay for additional security needs because of a protest that was anticipated.” Abrams further wrote that “[t]he students will not, in fact, be charged for additional security associated with anticipated demonstrators when the event is rescheduled and occurs.” L.O.G.I.C. has rescheduled the debate for May 1.
 
In a subsequent letter, sent on March 26, Abrams wrote that while L.O.G.I.C. will not have to pay for UC Police officers to patrol the event, the group will have to pay for a private security firm to perform “administrative” tasks, such as bag-checking and ushering, at the event.
 
This latest decision does raise some more concerns, however. First, the private firm, Contemporary Services Corporation (CSC), seems rather security-oriented. If they are not providing security, but merely performing “administrative” tasks, can groups opt to have other students perform those tasks instead? Second, will the number of CSC staffers at an event depend upon the potential controversy that event might spark? If so, then charges will still be content-based, and controversial expression will still be more expensive than more banal expression on UCLA’s campus.
 
FIRE plans to find out the answers to these questions and will not drop this issue until UCLA has a clear policy in place that cannot be used to chill or overburden controversial expression on campus. In the mean time, the new plan is a vast improvement over the prohibitively expensive practice that silenced L.O.G.I.C.’s debate in the first place.

Schools: University of California, Los Angeles