Liberty Hangout, a gun-rights student group at Kent State University, recently won an injunction against its school’s attempt to impose security fees on the group’s event, titled “Let’s Talk Gun Rights.” The gathering was made possible after a federal judge blocked the university’s requirement that the group front $1,798.40 in security costs prior to hosting the event.
According to Liberty Hangout’s complaint, Kent State policy on “non-university affiliated speakers” requires the sponsoring student group to “be responsible for all expenses and damages incurred to the university,” including security costs. The group sought to bring in Kaitlin Bennett, the founder and former president of the group. Bennett is a noted Second Amendment activist, having led a rally at Kent State in September that required a large law enforcement presence due to violent threats and significant protests, costing the school an estimated $65,000 in security.
In its lawsuit, the group alleges Kent State considered this history in calculating the fee for hosting an event featuring Bennett. Liberty Hangout claims that Kent State counsel cited this event as a major factor in its decision, which was not constrained or guided by any university policy establishing criteria for determinations on security costs. Since the group could not pay the fee, the event could not go forward; thus, the university’s imposition of the security fee stifled the group’s expression.
In a ruling on Nov. 16, the United States District Court for the Northern District of Ohio agreed with the group in granting its request for a temporary restraining order blocking Kent State from imposing the fee. Judge John Adams stated during the hearing, “We can’t allow protestors to shift the [financial] burden to the speaker and her organization.” After the ruling, Kent State agreed to provide security free of charge for the event, which went off without a hitch.
Liberty Hangout’s victory demonstrates the folly of open-ended university security fee policies. It’s well-settled law that universities cannot saddle student groups with the costs of security when the sum is based on the content of their speech or the expected reaction to their expression. As the Supreme Court of the United States has proclaimed, the First Amendment protects “[t]hose wishing to express views unpopular with bottle throwers.” It explained: “Speech cannot be financially burdened, any more than it can be punished or banned, simply because it might offend a hostile mob.” State universities such as Kent State must instead use content-neutral policies with concrete criteria when accessing security costs.
Additionally, when universities attempt to impose viewpoint-based security fees on student groups, they abandon their obligations to uphold student free speech rights and ensure campus safety. Considering that many universities are billion-dollar institutions bound by the law or their own policies to protect First Amendment freedoms, it is the university — not the student group — that must be the final guarantor of the security required for students to exercise these freedoms.
We’re glad to see the federal court get it right here, and we encourage universities with unduly-restrictive security fees policies to consider revisions, lest they end up on the losing side of a lawsuit.
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