FIRE warned the University of New Mexico in 2017 about imposing exorbitant event security fees on student groups. It’s flatly unconstitutional. But six years later, UNM is reportedly at it again, billing a chapter of Students for Life of America more than $8,000 to host a campus speaker.
According to SFLA, UNM’s police department billed the group $8,140 to cover security fees for a campus event featuring SFLA President Kristan Hawkins titled “Lies Pro-Choicers Believe.”
While UNM’s security fees policy appears to properly use viewpoint-neutral criteria for invited speakers, the application to SFLA is unconstitutional. Because while UNM can charge reasonably calculated security fees and must ensure expressive events are not substantially disrupted, it cannot impose excessive fees on student expression because administrators think the views expressed might be controversial.
As our letter explains:
Allowing the subjectively determined controversial nature of Students for Life UNM’s invited speakers to form the basis for exorbitant fees effectuates a heckler’s veto, allowing the anticipated audience reaction to price speakers out of the marketplace of ideas.
Because UNM is a government entity committed to free expression, it—not student groups—must foot the bill to ensure a broad range of viewpoints can be heard on campus. With a nearly $600 million endowment, we’re confident UNM can pay the $8,000 security bill for this speech without issue.
UNM should know better, too. In January 2017, it faced a near-identical situation when students invited conservative political commentator Milo Yiannopoulos to campus. UNM charged the College Republicans $3,400 in fees to host the event. After we wrote the university explaining why it cannot tax those who host controversial expressive events, UNM suspended the policy and announced the student group would not be charged. The school eventually removed the objectionable language and we believed the school had learned its lesson.
But a policy that is constitutional as written can still be applied in an unconstitutional manner, and that’s what UNM appears to be doing with Students for Life. Universities that are bound by the First Amendment must allow students to express a wide range of views on campus, and cannot tax unpopular speakers. UNM should work with the student group to ensure security costs are paid by the university and the event can proceed without significant disruption.
UNM did the right thing in 2017. We’re urging them to repeat that part of their past and correct this apparent wrong now.
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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