UCLA has feet held to the FIRE

March 30, 2007

When most people think of college campuses, they think of robust debate, intense discussion, and the occasional emotional rant. It’s college, and students are paying a steep price tag to have their beliefs challenged and their minds exercised.

With such an understanding in mind, a student group at the University of California Los Angeles (UCLA) thought it would be informative and entertaining to host an immigration debate on campus. The thought was not wild, as the kids at UCLA were merely mimicking the 67 percent of American people that told CNN they believe the number of immigrants must be reduced and the issue addressed.

Thus, a UCLA student group—Liberty, Objectivity, Greed, Individualism, Capitalism (L.O.G.I.C)—invited two prominent speakers to come to the sunny California campus and engage in an intellectual battle of wits. It did not take long for Carl Braun, Executive Director of the Minuteman Civil Defense Corps of California, and open borders advocate Yaron Brook, President of the Ayn Rand Institute, to accept the invitations.

It appeared all was well in the Golden State and the debate was scheduled for February 6. But looks can be deceiving.

Two days prior to the debate, UCLA’s Student for a Democratic Society (SDS) decided to mobilize its troops to shut down L.O.G.I.C.’s immigration debate. SDS posted an online bulletin calling on students to “say no to hate” and to “come tell the Minutemen they are not welcome at UCLA’s campus.” SDS is not a group officially recognized by UCLA.

SDS urged protesters to bring “banners, noisemakers, bullhorns, whatever,” to shout down “the Minutemen and the racist agenda they promote.” SDS made it clear that they did not want the Minutemen on campus.

According to Arthur Lechtholz,-Zey, leader of L.O.G.I.C., one protester posted a comment encouraging UCLA students to “do what they did at Columbia and shut it down.” The comment was referring to the disruption of a speech delivered by Jim Gilchrist, founder of the Minuteman Project, at Columbia University, in which the speech was disrupted and violence erupted.

While SDS was stirring the political pot on campus, UCLA administrators were getting cold feet and were fearful that the disruption experience at Columbia was coming to their doorstep. Thus, on February 5, administrators told Lechtholz-Zey that L.O.G.I.C. would have to pay security costs if the debate was to be held.

UCLA demanded that an additional 46 security guards be hired to patrol inside the theater and the surrounding grounds while the debate was being held. UCLA further told L.O.G.I.C. that the student group had to bear the cost of the additional guards, which was estimated at an additional $12,000 to $15,000. L.O.G.I.C. could not afford the astronomical amount, was forced to cancel the debate, and contacted the Philadelphia- based Foundation for Individual Rights in Education (FIRE).

“A public university cannot penalize students financially for hosting a controversial event,” stated Greg Lukianoff, president of FIRE.

FIRE immediately sprung into action and wrote UCLA, urging them to reconsider their position that L.O.G.I.C. be forced to pay upwards of $15,000 prior to hosting this debate.

In a letter written to Norman Abrams, Acting Chancellor of UCLA, FIRE argued, “UCLA’s stated requirement that student organizations hosting controversial events pay for extra security is clearly unconstitutional, as it affixes a price tag to events based upon their expressive content.”

To support its contention, the civil rights organization pointed to Forsyth County v. Nationalist Movement, a U.S. Supreme Court case that held a Forsyth County, Georgia ordinance that tied fee costs to the anticipated need for security unconstitutional.

In explaining why such an ordinance was unconstitutional, Justice Harry Blackmun, writing for the court, reasoned, “[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.” Hence, FIRE argued that UCLA’s requirement was no different than the Forsyth ordinance.

FIRE also warned UCLA that the university was traveling down a troubling path, for its decision was effectively giving students a heckler’s veto that could be used to silence constitutionally-protected speech.

In its letter, FIRE explained, “Protestors wishing to shut down speech with which they disagree merely have to threaten to protest, and student groups not able to furnish thousands of dollars will be forced to cancel their events. As happened with L.O.G.I.C.’s planned debate, disruptive protests win out over responsible expressive activity.”

After its feet were held to the fire, Chancellor Abrams wrote FIRE and reversed the decision requiring L.O.G.I.C. to bear the $15,000 additional security costs.

Abrams wrote that UCLA “understands its obligation to bear the reasonable security costs relating to demonstrations that might result in response to controversial speech. It was not appropriate for campus representatives to suggest that the student group would be obligated to pay for additional security needs because of a protest that was anticipated.”

With the burdensome security costs removed from its shoulders, L.O.G.I.C. has rescheduled the debate for May 1 and the group is looking forward to a successful event.

Lukianoff, after receiving news of UCLA’s decision, stated, “UCLA’s change of heart was crucial; after all, if a debate at a university can effectively be shut down by threats from those who want to prevent vital issues from even being discussed, where in America is it safe to debate the pressing issues of the day?”

This, however, is not the end of the free speech road for UCLA. The folks at FIRE are asking UCLA to use this incident as a learning experience and have urged the campus to develop a policy that would prevent such constitutional infractions from repeating.

“Thankfully, UCLA has recognized that it cannot allow the most disruptive members of the community to shut down speech with which they disagree simply by threatening violent protest,” stated Robert Shibley, Vice President of FIRE. “FIRE is now calling on UCLA to develop a clear, permanent policy so that this will never happen again.”

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Schools: University of California, Los Angeles Cases: University of California at Los Angeles: Controversial Student Event Cancelled