Lawsuit! Student Group Sues After Western Michigan U. Taxes Controversial Speech
WASHINGTON, Oct. 20, 2014—A Western Michigan University (WMU) student organization has filed a First Amendment lawsuit against the university today with assistance from the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education (FIRE).
The lawsuit stems from WMU’s demand that the Kalamazoo Peace Center (KPC), a registered student organization, pay a hefty security fee before hosting rapper and social activist Boots Riley for a speech on campus last spring. The suit is the seventh First Amendment lawsuit filed as part of FIRE’s Stand Up For Speech Litigation Project.
“Western Michigan University’s censorship relied on an old trick: Having realized that it could not outright ban Boots Riley from campus, WMU tried to tax him away,” said FIRE President Greg Lukianoff. “WMU is about to learn that such transparent censorship doesn’t fly under the First Amendment.”
The complaint alleges that when KPC sought to secure university space for Riley’s keynote address for its annual Peace Week commemoration, WMU refused, citing “public safety.” When presented with evidence that Riley had appeared on other college campuses without incident, WMU notified KPC that it could hold the event on campus—but only after paying $62 per hour for private security. Rather than pay this unforeseen and unjustifiable expense, KPC arranged for Riley to speak in the basement of the Wesley Foundation building, a campus ministry group whose facility was not controlled by the university.
WMU has no published guidelines for deciding which speakers might require security. Instead, WMU Department of Public Safety Chief Blaine Kalafut has admitted that decisions are made on a “case-by-case basis” and with consideration of the speaker’s identity and history. Today’s lawsuit challenges this unconstitutional practice, which functions as a viewpoint-based tax on controversial, dissenting, or unpopular speech.
The suit also challenges WMU’s requirement that students submit flyers for approval and that postings “conform to generally accepted standards of good taste,” arguing that these policies violate the First Amendment by instituting a licensing scheme for free expression.
FIRE has retained preeminent First Amendment attorney Robert Corn-Revere of Davis Wright Tremaine to serve as counsel for KPC and its co-directors, Nola Wiersma and Jessica Clark.
Six of the seven federal lawsuits filed as part of FIRE’s Stand Up For Speech Litigation Project are currently being litigated or are in settlement discussion. A suit against Modesto Junior College in California was successfully concluded in February after the college revised its speech policies and paid $50,000 to settle the case.
On September 17 of this year—Constitution Day—FIRE mailed warning letters to more than 300 public colleges and universities that maintain speech codes that violate the First Amendment rights of students and faculty. The letters informed college officials of FIRE’s Stand Up For Speech Litigation Project and notified them that their institution could face a lawsuit if it continued to fail to meet its legal obligations under the First Amendment.
FIRE is a nonprofit educational foundation that unites civil rights and civil liberties leaders, scholars, journalists, and public intellectuals from across the political and ideological spectrum on behalf of individual rights, freedom of expression, academic freedom, due process, and freedom of conscience at our nation’s colleges and universities. FIRE’s efforts to preserve liberty on campuses across America can be viewed at thefire.org.
Katie Barrows, Communications Coordinator, FIRE: 215-717-3473; email@example.com