Cases where university administrators charge students activists unconstitutional security fees are not at all new to FIRE. But Mayor Dan Drew of Middletown, Connecticut, has put a new spin on the idea, sending an invoice to Wesleyan University for the police presence at an off-campus protest that Wesleyan students organized and in which they participated.
Wesleyan itself does not appear to have sponsored or organized the protest, so how can it be fined for the activities of its students in this case? College students are adults, and universities do not act in loco parentis. Adult college students are responsible for their own speech and activities.
Wesleyan’s reaction to the fine has, unfortunately, been subpar. While Wesleyan rightly did not pay the fine, it nevertheless wrote a larger check to the town than Mayor Drew had asked for in the guise of a “donation” as “appreciation for the city’s efforts.” This attempt to halve the baby sets a bad precedent. In caving to the mayor’s demand (without actually admitting it was doing so), Wesleyan is helping send a message that it’s worth trying to hold colleges financially accountable for the protected free speech of their students, even when they’re not on campus. Since this could rapidly get expensive, this creates a significant danger that universities will prevent their students from engaging in such protests, or punish them for doing so, in order to avoid bills (or “bills”) from local government administrators.
Wesleyan President Michael Roth wrote in a letter to Drew that “we feel strongly that the right to protest should not come with a price tag.” Roth is right to feel that way. But “donating” the $10,000 to Middletown sends the message that Roth isn’t willing to stand up for that principle in the face of political pressure.