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Columbia to cover cost of controversial speakers

Earlier this week, the Columbia Spectator reported that Columbia University has agreed to cover security costs for controversial speakers invited to campus by student groups. This proactive step will help ensure that students will be able to hear from — and peacefully protest — speakers brought to campus. Other institutions would be wise to follow suit.

Previously, security fees were paid for by the Columbia College Student Council using student activity fees. That arrangement proved contentious last semester, when the Columbia University College Republicans hosted “alt-right” speakers Tommy Robinson and Mike Cernovich. Each event required a significant security presence. Robinson’s appearance was disrupted by protesters; Cernovich spoke as planned as community members protested outside.

Following those events — and a call from the Black Students’ Organization to defund the College Republicans — the Student Council submitted a “formal concern report” to university administrators. The report argued in part that “students should not have to pay for the decisions of one group which do not only negatively impact the community, but in fact restrict all other potentially positive community programming.”

The Spectator’s Jesús Guerra reports that per the new arrangement, “the high costs incurred by hosting the speakers will no longer come out of a fund comprised of student activities fees, which students from all four undergraduate schools pay.” The costs from last semester’s events will also be retroactively covered.   

The decision makes sense.

For years, FIRE has pointed out the practical (and, at public institutions, constitutional) problem with requiring student organizations to pay for security fees generated by their choice of speaker: Imposing those costs on the student group allows for a form of the heckler’s veto by affixing a financial burden to a speaker’s viewpoint. When security fees based on anticipated crowd reaction are passed on to students, a controversial or dissenting speaker — whether it is Boots Riley, Bill Ayers, or Ben Shapiro — may prove to be prohibitively expensive simply because of the content of their message.

These types of de facto “viewpoint taxes” are unconstitutional at public universities, as FIRE has reminded many institutions over the years. Accordingly, it’s a positive development to see a private university committed to free expression recognizing the problem posed by such an arrangement and working to change it.

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