With Horowitz Speech Scheduled, Central Michigan Struggles with Free Speech Issues

By October 14, 2008

In a victory for the freedoms of expression and association, Central Michigan University has agreed to provide basic security for a speech tonight by author and conservative activist David Horowitz. FIRE has been urging CMU to meet its constitutional obligation not to financially burden speech that others might find offensive.

Horowitz had been invited by an organization named Campus Conservatives, the Young Americans for Freedom (YAF) chapter at CMU, to speak tonight at 7:30 p.m. for a free public lecture at Warriner Hall in the Plachta Auditorium. On October 9, 2008, Campus Conservatives student Dennis Lennox received an e-mail from one of Horowitz’s staff, informing him that the university had decided to require that Campus Conservatives pay for two uniformed security officers for two hours each at a rate of $55 per hour, or a total of $220. On the same day, Keith Voeks, Assistant Director of University Events at CMU, e-mailed Lennox and confirmed that his group would be charged for security despite the fact that CMU had not charged the group for security for previous controversial events.

FIRE wrote CMU President Michael Rao on October 10, pointing out that the Supreme Court had declared such charges unconstitutional in Forsyth County v. Nationalist Movement in 1992: "[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." In a response yesterday, Rao promised to provide the two officers for the event but said that CMU would review its historical practices in order to determine whether it would later charge Campus Conservatives for the security after all.

While it is good that Rao has decided to provide the necessary security so that the event can go forward, his response that CMU had not yet decided whether or not to charge the group for the security is constitutionally inadequate and provides no justification for the possible security charges. The reason for the Supreme Court’s decision in Forsyth County is obvious: charging unpopular or controversial speakers for protecting them from those who would answer speech with violence would guarantee that no seriously controversial speech would ever be heardunless, of course, the controversial speaker was rich or supported by an organization with deep pockets. Indeed, a policy of charging speakers for their own protection, which Rao seems to be considering, would incentivize those who want to silence others to engage in violence or even just to threaten violence. After all, the more violence that is threatened, the more security is required, at greater cost to the speaker. Ultimately, what Rao is considering is giving the angriest and most violent mob the most powerful "heckler’s veto" on speech. Why this would be appropriate anywhere in the United States, let alone at a university, public or private, is utterly unclear.

Last year, CMU had to change its policy against letting belief-based organizations choose their own members on the basis of those beliefs. Now, it is actively considering charging student groups more money for the "offense" of having the most violent opponents. Will CMU ever start treating all groups by the same standard?

Schools: Central Michigan University