Today, as Dutch politician Geert Wilders’ trial begins in Amsterdam over his controversial remarks about terrorism and Islam, there is an American angle to the case: Temple University students have been charged an unconstitutional, after-the-fact security fee by Temple for hosting a presentation by Wilders last semester. The student group, Temple University Purpose (TUP), turned to FIRE for help after being charged the fee, and is being met with silence after a Temple official promised to look into it.
Wilders’ trial in the Netherlands would be unconstitutional in the United States thanks to the First Amendment. As Robert notes in today’s press release, "Temple University needs to realize that, unlike in the Netherlands, controversial speech is protected in the United States. 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. I was there and know firsthand that the event proceeded without any significant incident.
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 after a brief exchange through December 11, she received no substantive reply. Frustrated with the university’s demand for payment and subsequent lack of explanation, Walsh and TUP turned to FIRE.
In a January 4 letter to Temple University President Ann Weaver Hart, we described the university’s constitutional responsibility to pay for any extra security it deemed necessary for the event. We 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.
President Hart has not responded to our letter, so Temple is taking another turn in the public eye. 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?