Professors at the University of Washington School of Law recently released a letter criticizing their university’s attempt to impose a security fee on a student group for hosting a controversial speaker. The letter provides a compelling review of the legal and policy reasons why universities must not charge student groups viewpoint-based security costs for their events.
Their letter is a tour de force of First Amendment law. It was written in response to UW imposing a $17,000 security fee on the College Republicans for scheduling conservative political activist Joey Gibson to speak at their event, a fee that a court later blocked UW from assessing. The 23 signatories of the letter lay out why imposing onerous police costs on groups hosting controversial speakers is not only unconstitutional at a public university, but also against the interest of the university as an educational institution.
The law professors trace cases on this issue back to the Civil Rights Movement, explaining that, for over half a century, the Supreme Court of the United States has held that protesters cannot be forcibly removed from public spaces due to hostility to their activism. Their letter walks through the “long line of Supreme Court decisions holding that constitutional rights cannot be curtailed because of the danger of violent opposition.” It then applies this principle to UW’s “policy of charging student groups a substantial fee for events at which extremely unpopular ideas are expressed,” which “is not a constitutionally permissible basis for burdening otherwise protected freedom of expression.”
The letter concludes by highlighting how this principle has endured throughout American history as a bulwark against the suppression of unpopular views:
Time and again, during the difficult days of the civil rights movement, the courts held that the government cannot limit or burden speech because it is likely to provoke others to attack a speaker or his or her supporters. … However much Mr. Gibson’s views may differ from those of the civil rights heroes who established this principle, the College Republicans are entitled to invoke that same principle when he speaks at the University of Washington.
FIRE echoes the sentiments of these professors and will continue to speak out against repressive security fee policies. When it comes to levying security costs, we encourage universities to use policies with objective, content- and viewpoint-neutral criteria such as the number of participants, the size of the venue, and whether the event is open to the public. We stand ready to help colleges reform their security policies so that they are not used as a tool for censorship.
Those interested in this issue should check out the full letter and the many helpful decisions cited therein.