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University of Houston reacts fast to protect free speech

Readers often ask how a school can maintain FIRE’s highest, “green light” rating in light of incidents of censorship at that institution. Our answer has always been that our ratings system is designed only to evaluate an institution’s written policies. While a university’s policies are one useful data point to consider when evaluating a university’s free speech climate, even with speech-protective policies, censorship can and does occur. Conversely, even when FIRE rates a school as “yellow” or “red” light, sometimes they get free speech right in practice. Earlier this month, the University of Houston provided just such an example.

The UH chapter of Young Americans for Freedom had been planning an event featuring a speech by David Horowitz for November 2. On October 24, UH’s Assistant Director of Student Centers reached out to YAF in order to coordinate security logistics. YAF at UH Founding Chair Karen Ben-Moyal responded, noting that Horowitz would be bringing his own security and did not require any additional officers from UH.

On October 25, UH Police Officer Ray Raulerson emailed Ben-Moyal to discuss the Horowitz event. After Ben-Moyal unsuccessfully attempted to reach him, Raulerson emailed Ben-Moyal on October 28, five days before the event, insisting that YAF at UH would be required to bear the cost of whatever security the UH Police Department saw fit to require. Raulerson’s email read, in part:

I would still like to speak with you personally, but I feel an urgent need to advise you of where the police department stands in regard to your event featuring David Horowitz.  Simply put, there is some concern.  As you are aware there is sometimes opposition to Mr. Horowitz’ message, and with the recent reservation made by a particular student organization to hold an event in the same building, and at the same time as Mr. Horowitz, we believe there is a high potential for tension, and possibly conflict.  

Therefore, we anticipate having to take a measured approach to the situation to protect the rights and safety of all.  The department will deploy a number of officers (a number not yet determined) to your event to ensure the safety of your speaker and guests.  The cost of security personnel and measures is to be borne by the event organizer, and we need to discuss these measures in advance of the event so that you understand your organizations [sic] responsibilities.

This is hardly the first time FIRE has seen a university attempt to impose security requirements at the expense of student organizations who have invited speakers to campus. In fact, it’s not the first time this year that a university has done so for an event featuring David Horowitz. In July, FIRE wrote to New Mexico State University after it imposed a security fee of over $300 less than a week before David Horowitz was scheduled to speak. As we explained to NMSU:

The Supreme Court has explicitly forbidden the imposition of additional security fees based on the controversial nature of a speaker: “Speech cannot be financially burdened, any more than it can be punished or banned, simply because it might offend a hostile mob.” Forsyth County v. Nationalist Movement, 505 U.S. 123, 134–35 (1992). In Forsyth, the Supreme Court struck down an ordinance permitting the local government to set varying fees for events, including public demonstrations, based on how much police protection the event would require. Id. at 134, 137. The Court held that the imposition of fees related to public speech must be based upon content-neutral criteria, and made clear that “[l]isteners’ reaction to speech is not a content-neutral basis for regulation.” Id. at 134.

Raulerson made plain that the security requirement was at least in part based on anticipated opposition to Horowitz — precisely the end-run around the First Amendment that the Supreme Court forbade in Forsyth. Fortunately, UH attorneys quickly grasped the problem. When FIRE learned of the security requirements, we reached out to UH’s Office of the General Counsel to raise our concerns. After a brief discussion, and an internal inquiry, UH informed FIRE on November 1 that it would not be imposing a security charge for the next day’s event.

We are appreciative of the UH General Counsel’s swift action, once it was informed of the incident, to safeguard the First Amendment rights of UH students.

Unfortunately, with tensions over speaker invitations running high, it is unlikely that this is the last such incident that we’ll see. But colleges and universities can avoid these controversies simply by maintaining published, objective, and content-neutral criteria to govern the imposition of security requirement on student events. As always, FIRE is ready to assist administrators in drafting policies that meet First Amendment standards.

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