BERKELEY, Calif., and BOULDER, Colo., March 17, 2009—Open discussion of Israeli-Palestinian issues can now resume unburdened at the University of California at Berkeley, which has slashed a “security fee” that would have kept a controversial speaker off campus. Meanwhile, students at the University of Colorado at Boulder are nervously awaiting a promised $2,200 security bill for a speech by controversial professors William Ayers and Ward Churchill. Students at both universities have turned to the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education (FIRE) for help.
“Charging for extra security because of a potentially hostile audience grants the most disruptive or violent hecklers a veto over controversial events and creates an incentive for that kind of behavior,” Greg Lukianoff, FIRE’s President, said. “It’s also unconstitutional at a public college or university.”
At Berkeley, members of the Objectivist Club of Berkeley (OCB) turned to FIRE when faced with a $3,000 security fee to host a speech by Elan Journo entitled “America’s Stake in the Arab-Israeli Conflict.” OCB President Dave Zornek was told by the UC Berkeley Police Department that uniformed officers would be required for the event because of the subject matter of Journo’s presentation and previous tension between Israeli and Palestinian student groups. On February 5, Officer John Lechmanik estimated that OCB would have to pay for two sergeants and at least ten or twelve officers at a total cost of at least $3,220.63.
On February 12, FIRE wrote Berkeley Chancellor Robert J. Birgeneau to protest the prohibitively expensive security fee. FIRE’s letter cited the Supreme Court’s ruling in Forsyth County v. Nationalist Movement, 505 U.S. 123 (1992), which prohibits increasing a security fee because of a potentially hostile audience: “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.”
Berkeley responded on February 25 by promising to use only content-neutral criteria for security. According to Zornek, such criteria included the expected number of attendees, the nature of and number of exits from the room for the event, whether money would be exchanged, and so on. As a result, OCB was charged only about $460 for two police officers.
However, Zornek also reported that Berkeley’s Assistant Chief of Police told him on February 27 that in cases when the audience causes a real threat to public safety, it would be up to the sponsoring group to decide whether to close down the event or to incur additional security costs. This policy would unconstitutionally burden unpopular speech, giving the most violent and intolerant members of the community the power to shut down a controversial event.
“Berkeley must publish its content-neutral criteria for security costs as soon as possible,” Adam Kissel, Director of FIRE’s Individual Rights Defense Program, said. “Doing so would help other public universities around the country, like the University of Colorado at Boulder, impose security costs fairly and without violating the First Amendment.”
At the University of Colorado at Boulder (CU-Boulder), FIRE is working with the student group Students for True Academic Freedom to ensure that the university does not impose unacceptable security costs for a March 5 event that included controversial speakers Ward Churchill and William Ayers. The university reportedly plans to bill the group $2,203.42 for security for this event, which has already occurred and which did not see significant disruption.
According to CU-Boulder spokesman Bronson Hilliard, as reported at thedenverchannel.com, the school also recently charged the College Republicans group $4,800 in security fees for “an event featuring two men who claimed to be former members of the Palestinian Liberation Organization.”
“Whether it’s Bill Ayers or anti-PLO speakers, CU-Boulder must not charge its students extra for bringing controversial ideas and speakers to campus,” Kissel said. “A university should be society’s ultimate marketplace of ideas. Pricing some ideas right out of the market with excessive, unconstitutional fees makes a mockery of American freedom.”
FIRE is a nonprofit educational foundation that unites civil rights and civil liberties leaders, scholars, journalists, and public intellectuals across the political and ideological spectrum on behalf of individual rights, due process rights, freedom of expression, and rights of conscience on our nation’s campuses. FIRE’s efforts to preserve liberty at the University of California at Berkeley, the University of Colorado at Boulder, and elsewhere can be seen by visiting www.thefire.org.
Help FIRE defend liberty on campus! E-mail University of Colorado at Boulder Interim Chancellor Phil DiStefano at firstname.lastname@example.org to let him know what you think about CU-Boulder’s prohibitive security fees for controversial speakers on campus.
Adam Kissel, Director, Individual Rights Defense Program, FIRE: 215-717-3473; email@example.com
Elan Journo, Fellow, Ayn Rand Center for Individual Rights: 949-222-6550, extension 215; firstname.lastname@example.org
Robert J. Birgeneau, Chancellor, University of California at Berkeley: 510-642-7464; email@example.com
Phil DiStefano, Interim Chancellor, University of Colorado at Boulder: 303-492-8908; firstname.lastname@example.org