PHILADELPHIA, January 20, 2010—Dutch politician Geert Wilders’ trial begins today in Amsterdam over his controversial remarks about terrorism and Islam. While such a trial would be unconstitutional in the United States thanks to the First Amendment, students at Temple University in Philadelphia are nevertheless facing an unconstitutional, after-the-fact security fee levied by the university for hosting a presentation by Wilders. The student group, Temple University Purpose (TUP), has turned to the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education (FIRE) for help.
“Temple University needs to realize that, unlike in the Netherlands, controversial speech is protected in the United States,” said Robert Shibley, FIRE’s Vice President. “In our nation, it is unconstitutional to charge a student group extra fees for security simply because a speaker’s views are controversial or don’t meet with the approval of Temple University administrators.”
TUP hosted the event featuring Wilders in Temple’s Anderson Hall on October 20, 2009. Wilders came to notice in the United States largely through the controversy surrounding his short film Fitna, released in 2008, which features various passages of the Koran interspersed with scenes or descriptions of violence or hatred on the part of Muslims. The movie was shown as part of his presentation at Temple. Extra security was provided for the event, which proceeded without disturbance.
More than a month later, on December 3, TUP was surprised with a bill from Temple for $800 for “Security Officer,” with the explanation that the charge was for the costs “to secure the room and building.” TUP Interim President Brittany Walsh pointed out in an e-mail to administrators that Temple had said before the event that the university would pay any extra security costs, but she received no substantive reply even after repeated e-mails. Frustrated with the university’s demand for payment and subsequent lack of explanation, Walsh and TUP turned to FIRE.
In a letter to Temple University President Ann Weaver Hart, FIRE described the university’s constitutional responsibility to pay for any extra security it deemed necessary for the event. FIRE cited the U.S. Supreme Court’s decision in Forsyth County v. Nationalist Movement (1992), which struck down a local government’s increased fee for police protection for controversial events because “Speech cannot be financially burdened, any more than it can be punished or banned, simply because it might offend a hostile mob.” As a public university, Temple is bound by the Supreme Court’s decision. Four other public universities—the University of Colorado at Boulder; University of Massachusetts Amherst; University of California, Berkeley; and University of Arizona—abandoned such security fees in FIRE cases last year. Hart has not responded to FIRE’s letter.
Adam Kissel, Director of FIRE’s Individual Rights Defense Program, who attended the Wilders event at Temple, said, “This is hardly the first time that Temple University has ignored its constitutional responsibilities. Less than two years ago, Temple’s speech code was struck down by the Third Circuit. When will Temple finally start taking the First Amendment seriously?”
FIRE is a nonprofit educational foundation that unites civil rights and civil liberties leaders, scholars, journalists, and public intellectuals from across the political and ideological spectrum on behalf of individual rights, due process, freedom of expression, academic freedom, and rights of conscience at our nation’s colleges and universities. FIRE’s efforts to preserve liberty on campuses across America can be viewed at thefire.org.
Adam Kissel, Director, Individual Rights Defense Program, FIRE: 215-717-3473; email@example.com
Ann Weaver Hart, President, Temple University: 215-204-7405; firstname.lastname@example.org