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University of Washington settles security fee censorship lawsuit, agrees to change policy and pay $122,500 in legal fees

On June 14, the University of Washington settled with the UW College Republicans over a $17,000 security fee imposed on the students for scheduling a rally with the conservative group Patriot Prayer. The settlement requires UW to create a viewpoint-neutral security fee policy and dole out $122,500 to the College Republicans for attorneys’ fees.

The settlement ends the College Republicans’ lawsuit, filed in February, over their effort to have conservative political activist Joey Gibson, the founder of Patriot Prayer, speak at their event. The university sought to charge the group $17,000 for security due to past protests of conservative speakers at UW and other colleges that have resulted in violence and property damage.

After UW imposed the fee, the College Republicans sued the university, alleging that the outsized security fee was a viewpoint-based cost for unpopular speech — an act at odds with the public university’s obligation to respect First Amendment rights. Additionally, the group accused UW of engaging in an “unconstitutional heckler’s veto” by charging it for any damage caused by the anticipated reaction to controversial speech. Shortly after the group filed suit in federal district court in Seattle, the court issued a temporary restraining order preventing UW from collecting the fee, which allowed the College Republicans’ event to occur. The group received support from several UW law school professors, who criticized UW for its “policy of charging student groups a substantial fee for events at which extremely unpopular ideas are expressed.”

Four months later, UW settled the case, agreeing to change its security fee policy and pay the group’s legal costs. Specifically, UW pledged to refrain from charging security fees “based on the content or viewpoint of a speaker’s speech or based on the community’s reaction or expected reaction to an invited speaker.”

This settlement is a welcome development given the trend of universities using onerous security fees to censor student groups. When a college sticks students with the costs of security when they seek to express themselves, it chills diverse speakers on campus and encourages those hostile to such messages to cause as much destruction as possible at their events. Security fee policies that charge a higher fee for more controversial speech codify the heckler’s veto by forcing marginalized student groups to pay up front for any violence at their events — costs they cannot cover, which effectively prevents them from speaking in the first place. Rather than shifting the costs of preserving public order to its students, a university must be the final guarantor of its students’ expressive freedoms, which necessarily include the right to voice unpopular opinions to a potentially hostile audience.

We are glad to see UW change its policy as a result of the settlement. We encourage all colleges with viewpoint-based security fee policies to take a cue from UW by instituting similar reforms, and we stand by ready to help make it happen.

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