Lawsuit Says WMU Policies Restrict Free Speech, Prevented Boots Riley Visit To Campus

October 22, 2014

By Rex Hall Jr. at MLive

KALAMAZOO, MI – A student group is taking Western Michigan University to court for policies it contends are unconstitutional and serve to restrict free speech on campus.

The 26-page action was filed Monday in U.S. District Court in Grand Rapids by the Kalamazoo Peace Center and the organization’s co-directors, Jessica Clark and Nola Wiersma.

It names as defendants WMU President John M. Dunn, Vice President of Student Affairs Diane Anderson, former WMU Department of Public Safety Chief Robert Brown, Department of Public Safety Deputy Chief Blaine Kalafut, Associate Registrar Laura M. Thomas, and Jan Van Der Kley, the university’s vice president for business and finance and treasurer for the Board of Trustees.

The civil-rights lawsuit is related to the Peace Center’s efforts in April to bring Boots Riley, a well-known musician, activist and labor advocate, to campus “to present a keynote speech on ideas and tactics to advance social justice” as part of a celebration of the Peace Center’s 35th Annual Peace Week.

The lawsuit says that the Peace Center’s efforts were stymied by WMU officials who initially denied a request to hold Riley’s April 3 speech at Sangren Hall and then later clarified that no campus venue would be available to the Peace Center for Riley’s visit.

The Peace Center asked university officials to reconsider, but according to the lawsuit, they responded that Riley could visit campus “only if KPC paid for the presence of police officers as ‘security’ for the lecture.”

“WMU imposed this requirement and set the fee to pay the officers based solely on the speculative campus reaction to Mr. Riley’s anticipated remarks,” alleges the lawsuit, which was filed on behalf of Clark and Wiersma by Lansing attorneys Bradley Shafer and Matthew J. Hoffer.

“KPC was forced to hold the event at a less-desirable non-university venue.”

WMU spokeswoman Cheryl Roland on Tuesday that she found the lawsuit “surprising, since it’s pegged on an event that happened more than six months ago and one on which we haven’t had any negative feedback from the students involved.”

“It’s puzzling,” added Roland, who said that the Peace Center has regularly held events on campus “for years.”

“We’ve worked with this student organizations for many years and I believe in previous instances there have been times when guest speakers they have brought to campus, we’ve asked for security measures … That’s a pretty standard practice.

“It’s, again, very surprising because that commitment to free speech rights is essential to this institution and it always has been.”

The Peace Center is being assisted in its legal action against WMU by the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education (FIRE), a Phiadelphia, Pa.-based organization with a focus on defending and sustaining “individual rights at America’s colleges and universities,” according to its website.

Clark said the Peace Center decided to pursue legal action against WMU because its policies regarding use of facilities and security requirements give it the ability “to silence anyone.”

“Basically, the security fee that was imposed on us for Boots Riley is an arbitrary tax on free speech,” Clark said. “We’re just trying to stand up for free speech. The university is a marketplace for ideas and ideas should be able to be shared freely so we want to make the university a more open and inclusive space for all voices.”

The lawsuit says that the Peace Center first submitted a request for a venue for Riley’s speech on March 3 to WMU’s Registrar’s Office. That date was the earliest possible date to submit a request under WMU’s Registered Student Organization Handbook Room Reservation Policy.

The request listed three preferred lecture halls for Riley’s speech and said the event would involve Riley giving a speech “about issues related to class structure and racism.”

Four days later, Thomas asked the Peace Center to provide her with a copy of Riley’s resume and the name of the university or venue where he last spoke. The Peace Center provided that information to Thomas and was later told by Thomas that the registrar’s office would “not be able to accommodate” the request at that time.

The Peace Center sought clarification from Thomas “whether no rooms were available or only that the rooms specified in the request were booked.” In turn, Thomas responded on March 13 that “the decision was made, in conjunction with public safety, that [WMU] will not reserve a room on campus for this event.”

The response from Thomas, according to the lawsuit, prompted the Peace Center to contact Kalafut, the deputy public safety chief, to find out why Riley could not deliver his speech on campus. Kalafut told the Peace Center that “Riley had previously caused a disturbance and his presence on campus had the potential to create a dangerous situation.”

“Although he acknowledged that Riley would not necessarily ’cause any harm to anyone on campus’ Defendant Kalafut cautioned ‘some messages can be controversial,’ and that ‘we need to be proactive to make sure the event is safe for all.'”

The lawsuit says that Kalafut later conducted a background security check on Riley and that the Peace Center was told by Paul Terzino, director of WMU’s Bernhard Center, that the security check would determine how much security would be required at the event at a rate of $62 per hour.

The lawsuit alleges that the Peace Center didn’t know, until then, that the university planned to impose security requirements and had not budgeted “for such unforeseen expenses.” In the end, Riley came to Kalamazoo, but gave his speech at the Wesley Foundation off campus.

Riley’s speech “took place without any type of disruption,” according to the lawsuit.

“The location was smaller than, and acoustically inferior to, lecture halls at WMU,” it states. “The building also is not handicapped-accessible, preventing an important segment of KPC’s constituency from attending the event.”

Additionally, the lawsuit says that WMU has in place a “burdensome” system for approving campus event flyers that forbids campus groups from posting any announcements until an event has been approved.

Because of that, the Peace Center wasn’t able to advertise Riley’s visit until “very close” to the date of the event because of the university’s initial refusal to allow the event and then its demands that the Peace Center pay for security, the lawsuit says.

The lawsuit takes WMU to task for its room-reservation and event security policies.

Specifically, it says that the reservation form that must be submitted by student organizations does not “request any information related to potential security issues” or suggest that use of a facility may be denied “for any reason other than availability during the time requested.”

Additionally, the lawsuit says that the event security policy for WMU states that registered student organizations may need to request security services for events but “does not set forth any criteria … to determine when security services ‘may’ be ‘needed'” and that Kalafut has stated previously that whether security is required for an event is decided on a case-by-case basis.

The lawsuit goes on to say that the event security policy requires payment up front for security but does not provide “any criteria or formula for determining how much the fee should be for any given event,” only that the Department of Public Safety is tasked with determining the number of officers required for security at events.

“Plaintiffs fear Defendants will continue to apply their Room Reservation and Event Security policies in ways that impede future KPC events. As interpreted and enforced by the Defendants, WMU’s … policies afford administrators unbridled discretion, enable them to restrict access to WMU property, and to impose arbitrary fees, without any specific parameters for whether ot set fees, or in what amounts.”

The attorneys for the Peace Center are asking a U.S. District Court judge to issue a judgment declaring WMU’s event security, room reservation and flyer/poster guidelines unconstitutional and issue an injunction prohibiting the university “from enforcing their restrictions on Plaintiffs’ expressive activities to the extent they are unconstitutional.”

Additionally, the lawsuit monetary damages and payment of reasonable costs and expenses.

Schools: Western Michigan University Cases: Western Michigan University – Stand Up For Speech Lawsuit FIRE’s Stand Up For Speech Litigation Project