On Tuesday, the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel reported that the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee was going to charge a conservative student group an unusually high security fee—$2500—in order to host a speech called “Why I Left Jihad” by controversial speaker Walid Shoebat. The Journal Sentinel reported that the usual security fee charged to student groups was between $250 and $500. As Torch readers may know, financially burdening speech on the grounds that it is controversial would violate the First Amendment at a public university like Wisconsin; the Supreme Court has explicitly held that “[s]peech 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 (1992).
Fortunately, the university quickly changed course, and what could have been a free speech debacle has become a refreshing example of a university handling controversial speech in a responsible manner. On Thursday, administrators announced that they would rescind the higher security fee, instead charging the student group the customary $500 to host Shoebat. UW-Milwaukee spokesman Tom Luljak told the Journal Sentinel that:
We feel badly that some have interpreted a fee recovery program as an attempt to censor or inhibit free speech. The university stands for free speech…Even the perception that we’re trying to inhibit a free and open discussion…warrants us taking a look at the policy.
Moreover, the Journal Sentinel reports that the Muslim Student Association—which opposes Shoebat’s views—will be hosting “a counterforum, ‘Why I Chose Islam,’ after Shoebat’s appearance.” This is a classic example of a constructive response to speech which one finds offensive or with which one disagrees: more speech.
Despite the initial problems, the responsible way in which this situation was ultimately handled should serve as an example to universities nationwide of the proper way to handle controversial speech.