Handful of Protesters Cause $800+ Unconstitutional Security Fee for Pro-Life Group

February 17, 2011

The Alliance Defense Fund has written a letter to the University of Michigan (UM) after learning that the university burdened the UM group Students for Life with unconstitutional security fees connected to an event featuring Alveda King, niece of the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.

Life News reports:

Students for Life hosted a two-part speaking event featuring King in October. Upon learning that a few students opposed to King’s views planned to protest at the event, the university insisted on providing Department of Public Safety officers even though Students for Life believed such security was unnecessary.

Approximately 250 people attended the evening portion of the King event. Only four or five pro-abortion protesters showed up and no incidents occurred at that time or at the invitation-only breakfast the following morning. Yet, following the event,  the university billed Students for Life more than $800 for the security personnel despite the group’s objections.

Whether four, five, or five hundred protesters had planned to show up, UM’s levying of such security fees on Students for Life is unconstitutional. It’s pretty clear why this should be so: If intolerant protesters sensed that all they had to do to prevent events from occurring were to show up in large (or, in this case, small) numbers and promise to raise a ruckus, knowing that the host organization would be forced to bankroll their disruptions, the barriers to speech would become intolerably high. This is no way for a democratic society to function.

FIRE has encountered this type of "heckler’s veto" over and over again at universities across the country, at events featuring figures as diverse as conservative writer Don Feder and liberal academics such as Bill Ayers and Ward Churchill. Recently, the group Temple University Purpose was hit with expensive security fees from an event last year, in which it hosted Dutch politician Geert Wilders.

As FIRE has said in many letters to universities on this issue:

The Supreme Court addressed precisely this issue in Forsyth County v. Nationalist Movement, 505 U.S. 123, 134-135 (1992), when it struck down an ordinance in Forsyth County, Georgia, that permitted the local government to set varying fees for events based upon how much police protection the event would need. Criticizing the ordinance, the Court wrote that "[t]he fee assessed will depend on the administrator’s measure of the amount of hostility likely to be created by the speech based on its content. Those wishing to express views unpopular with bottle throwers, for example, may have to pay more for their permit." Deciding that such a determination required county administrators to "examine the content of the message that is conveyed" (citation omitted), the Court wrote 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." (Emphasis added.)

Nonetheless, the situation at the University of Michigan is a reminder that Forsyth‘s message bears repeating. Hopefully UM will quickly recognize the precedent here and relieve Students for Life of the excessive security fees. We’ll keep you posted.

Schools:  University of Michigan – Ann Arbor