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‘Trump’ed-up charges: Trinity University imposes insurance requirement on campus speaker for having wrong last name

Trinity University reportedly required invited campus speaker to purchase insurance because she shares a last name with former President Donald Trump.
Cherise Trump speaks at a Young Conservatives of Texas panel in Austin

Twitter / @cherisetrump

Cherise Trump (second from right) speaks at a Young Conservatives of Texas panel in Austin.

Texas’s Trinity University reportedly required a speaker invited to campus by a conservative student group to purchase liability insurance for her appearance — all because she shares the same last name as former President Donald Trump. 

Trinity administrators required Cherise Trump, the executive director of the free speech nonprofit Speech First, to purchase a liability insurance policy as a condition of her appearance on campus based on concerns that her appearance presented an “elevated risk,” according to the Washington Free Beacon. Trinity Director of Risk Management & Insurance Jennifer Adamo told student organizers in an email that students may “mistakenly believe that Cherise Trump is related to Donald Trump which may attract opposing groups.” That’s right: Cherise Trump is not related to Donald Trump. Even if she were, Trinity’s actions would still be objectionable.

The campus chapter of Young Conservatives of Texas is hosting Trump on campus today. And, to make this event happen, Trump reportedly purchased a $76 insurance policy in anticipation of confusion that could be easily cleared up by a simple Google search. But that’s beside the point. FIRE’s main concern is that the university imposed a fee on a speaker because administrators deemed her controversial. 

As FIRE explained in a letter to the university today, Trinity makes strong promises of free expression and cannot burden students or a student-invited speaker with excessive fees because of potential reactions by objectors. The university promises students they “shall enjoy the same freedom of speech, peaceful assembly, and the right to petition that all other citizens enjoy.” Trinity’s clear invocation of free speech principles means students should expect to enjoy speech rights on par with those students enjoy at public universities. 

As our letter argues: 

Despite the First Amendment’s well-established intolerance of viewpoint discrimination, Trinity has affixed a viewpoint-based price tag to Young Conservatives of Texas’s expression. The Supreme Court addressed precisely this issue when it struck down a Georgia ordinance permitting the local government to set varying fees for events based upon how much police protection the event would need. Declaring the ordinance unconstitutional, the Court wrote “[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.” Because Trinity promises expressive rights, it must not engage in this type of viewpoint-discrimination.

Trinity violated its own free expression policies by forcing a student group-invited speaker to shoulder additional security costs because some students — perhaps falsely believing she’s related to the former president — may choose to protest her event. Even if Trump was related to the former president, or explicitly shared the former president’s views, Trinity may not burden her or the students who invited her with additional fees. 

If speakers with potentially controversial views, or student groups who invite them, must pay additional fees, it will disincentivize students from inviting them and the speakers from appearing — thereby limiting the views expressed on campus. A $76 policy may not have been significantly burdensome to Trump, but it could be burdensome for another speaker or student group with fewer resources. This is not only harmful to those speakers and student groups but to the entire campus community — which will be limited to hearing and engaging with viewpoints in lock-step with the majority.

Trinity is not alone in its treatment of YCT and Trump. Burdening speakers or student groups with excessive security-related fees is something FIRE has fought against for years. Whether in response to visits from right-wing provocateur Milo Yiannapoulos, rapper and social activist Boots Riley, professor and activist Bill Ayers, or conservative commentator Ben Shapiro, universities have repeatedly used a prospective speaker’s “controversial” nature to justify levying excessive fees on students. That’s not acceptable. (In fact, FIRE even filed a lawsuit resulting in a successful settlement against Western Michigan University for effectively forcing the Kalamazoo Peace Center’s event with Riley off-campus.)    

To be clear, students who disagree with Trump and YCT must also be free to express their opinions — through protest, social media, or any lawful means. But Trinity cannot require certain student-invited speakers to pay extra to speak on campus because their speech may be controversial.

While it’s too late for Trump, we call on Trinity to make clear it will not require insurance policies based on viewpoint in the future. 

FIRE defends the rights of students and faculty members — no matter their views — at public and private universities and colleges in the United States. If you are a student or a faculty member facing investigation or punishment for your speech, submit your case to FIRE today. If you’re a faculty member at a public college or university, call the Faculty Legal Defense Fund 24-hour hotline at 254-500-FLDF (3533). If you’re a college journalist facing censorship or a media law question, call the Student Press Freedom Initiative 24-hour hotline at 717-734-SPFI (7734).

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