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Speech tariffs: Cornell’s impending security fees

Walking up the steps to Cornell University’s Kennedy Auditorium this past spring, I was expecting a larger crowd. Dick Cheney was invited to speak by the Cornell Republicans and there had been talk for weeks about large, organized protests to his presence on campus. But as I approached the door to the auditorium, I was met by only a small handful of protesters, numbering twenty at most. They played music, chanted “Palestine will be free,” and raised painted signs.

Their peaceful activity greatly contrasted with the number of police officers all around — two at the front door, four in the lobby, four along the hallway, and many more inside the auditorium itself. I wondered: why so many? There certainly wasn’t any obvious or significant threat to safety from this small group of peaceful protestors. But, of course, judgments about what security arrangements will be necessary are made before the event. They are determined without knowledge of how much trouble could arise, or how much controversy could be stirred.

Security arrangements can be costly. Cornell assigns security fees to student groups who invite external speakers to our Ithaca campus by making a judgment that takes into consideration the possibility of demonstrations — a cost it then passes on to the student group that invited the speaker.

After seeing the disproportionate police force coordinated for Cheney’s protestors, I sought out information about Cornell’s security fees policy. Student organizations are funded by student activity fees paid every year by each Cornell student. When student organizations pay for security, they use these fees. So, I wanted to find out how Cornell determined how much to charge student groups for security. After reaching out to a friend, I obtained a copy of Cornell’s description of the planned policy, effective this fall 2018 semester.

While the upcoming policy has not yet been made public, the way Cornell characterizes it gives plenty of reason for concern. According to an email from the university, it intends to have all speaker security fees determined by the Cornell Police (CUPD). In the email, the university states that it will take into account factors such as “the type of activity” and “overall risk.” They will also calculate security fees based on the expected reaction to the speaker. The policy description advises student groups that security fees are necessary if “your event has a politician or other type of dignitary and some audience members might be outspoken critics.”

If Cornell’s actual policy looks like its plans, Cornell risks taxing speech and imposing a heckler’s veto. By requiring student groups to pay for security in this manner, the university places a financial burden on the ability of students to invite certain speakers to campus.

Since CUPD would consider the audience's potential reactions to a speaker when determining a security fee, they would effectively be making a judgment on the content of the speech. They would rely on the expected reception of the speaker or their views when assessing how much controversy would arise. If CUPD decides that a certain speaker has controversial ideas and is likely to spark protests, they will impose higher fees. This security fee can be prohibitive for any student group. The fees serve as financial roadblocks that will prevent students from inviting speakers who may otherwise provide the campus with opportunities for valuable discussion.

Cornell’s approach is, above all else, inconsistent with its own fundamental policies. In our Campus Code of Conduct, Cornell outright states that “[a]ll protection and regulation of expressive conduct should be content-neutral.” There is no clearer argument against the new security fees policy than the one put forth by Cornell itself. Any speaker invited to campus by a student group cannot be regulated on the basis of content. When CUPD, a branch of Cornell University, charges security fees to students, they make their decision based on the content, or the views, of the speaker. This is not content-neutral regulation.

When I enrolled at Cornell, I agreed to live in Cascadilla Hall. I agreed to listen to the clocktower chime 30 times a day. And I agreed to the promise of free expression outlined in the Campus Code of Conduct. When the security fees policy is implemented this coming fall, it must fall in line with that Campus Code. But Cornell’s own characterization of the policy does not offer much hope. These security fees will take students’ money and recycle it, on content-based grounds, into the Cornell Police department. It seems as though Cornell is intent on placing a tariff on invited speakers — a price tag on speech — to the detriment of its most fundamental code.

If Cornell doesn’t want to rewrite its own code to remove its expressed commitment to freedom of speech, it should follow in the footsteps of Columbia and the University of Washington and pay for security at speaker events on its own. This upcoming security fees policy, by forcing students to pay for demonstrations against speakers, contradicts Cornell’s own code, and runs counter to the most fundamental purpose of a university, which, as Cornell puts it, is “the discovery of truth through the practice of free inquiry.” How can Cornell’s students practice free inquiry if our speech is taxed?

Cornell has a choice to make. It can either disavow this plan for security fees, or it can abandon its commitment to free speech. I hope it chooses the former.

Ben Lee is a FIRE summer intern and rising junior at Cornell University

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