The University of Alabama (UA) has relented after imposing a $7,000 security fee on the College Republicans for hosting conservative provocateur and journalist Milo Yiannopoulos.
Like some other schools hosting Yiannopoulos on his “Dangerous Faggot Tour,” UA imposed exorbitant security fees on the group hosting the event. At first, UA told the College Republicans that security for the event would cost around $1,000. UA then hiked up the estimated cost to $5,000 before telling the group less than a week before the event that the final cost was actually close to $7,000. This sudden and sharp escalation came as a shock to the group, as UA made it clear from the beginning that there would be no event without the money.
Unfortunately, FIRE has seen these tactics used against groups inviting controversial speakers numerous times before. This is unconstitutional at public universities, as FIRE wrote in a letter sent to UA last Friday:
Forcing the College Republicans to shoulder the costs of security—because of UA’s subjective judgment that the anticipated response to viewpoints expressed at the event necessitate it—violates the College Republicans’ First Amendment rights and puts freedom of expression at UA at risk.… Any administrative imposition of security fees upon a student group must be guided by narrowly-drawn, viewpoint- and content-neutral, reasonable, definite, and published standards in order to comply with UA’s obligations under the First Amendment. In assessing security fees based on the subjective conclusion that Yiannopoulos is “controversial,” UA has committed precisely the type of viewpoint discrimination that the First Amendment prohibits.
The Crimson White also expressed its opposition to UA’s unreasonable security fees, adding that “...on a campus that keeps 100,000 people safe on game day, no amount of ‘security concerns’ could be [a] legitimate reason for this event to cancel.”
Finally, just a few days before the event, UA backed off its unconstitutional demands and rescinded the security fee, stating that “[t]he University of Alabama supports free speech and welcomes diverse speakers to our campus. As with all speakers, the views of Mr. Yiannopoulos do not necessarily reflect the views of the university.”
Although the initial escalating of the fee was troubling and could potentially deter other groups looking to invite controversial speakers, UA ultimately made the right decision by backing down and allowing the event to occur.
As the fall semester (and Yiannopoulos’ tour) goes into full swing, other universities should avoid UA’s mistake by refusing to use security fees to stifle the freedom of expression.