GRAND RAPIDS, Mich., May 4, 2015—Western Michigan University (WMU) has agreed to settle a First Amendment lawsuit that alleged the university taxed controversial speech by making student organizers pay for extra security to host rapper and social activist Boots Riley on campus.
The lawsuit, filed in October 2014 as part of the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education’s (FIRE’s) Stand Up For Speech Litigation Project, also challenged WMU’s posting and space reservation policies. Following settlement talks overseen by a federal magistrate judge, WMU has agreed to revise its policies to comply with the First Amendment and pay $35,000 in damages and attorneys’ fees.
The settlement is the fifth victory for the Stand Up For Speech Litigation Project. Stand Up For Speech lawsuits have resulted in settlements totaling over $270,000, and have resulted in policy reforms restoring the First Amendment rights of more than 150,000 students at public campuses in California, Hawaii, Michigan, and Ohio.
“With this important victory at WMU, each of the five concluded Stand Up For Speech lawsuits has been settled in favor of the First Amendment,” said FIRE President and CEO Greg Lukianoff. “FIRE has been warning public institutions nationwide for years that their speech codes won’t stand up in court—and it turns out that colleges won’t even attempt to defend them when challenged. We urge administrators to work with us proactively to achieve First Amendment compliance before our next suit is filed.”
The Kalamazoo Peace Center (KPC), a registered student organization at WMU, filed the federal lawsuit on October 20, after WMU, citing “public safety” concerns, first refused to allow Boots Riley on campus to deliver the keynote address at its annual Peace Week. After KPC provided administrators with evidence that Riley had spoken at other colleges without incident, WMU agreed to let Riley speak on campus—if KPC paid a hefty fee for private security. Because KPC could not afford this unexpected charge, it arranged for Riley to speak in the basement of the privately owned Wesley Foundation building, a smaller and less accessible location.
“We are very happy that WMU now has constitutional policies and are grateful to FIRE, our attorney Bob Corn-Revere, and his team at Davis Wright Tremaine,” said Co-Director of the Kalamazoo Peace Center Nola Wiersma. “All organizations on campus will be able to share their messages without having to worry about being silenced because they can’t pay arbitrary security fees. We were glad to assist in creating these just policies and look forward to continuing to work for peace and justice on Western Michigan University’s campus.”
The settlement follows negotiations conducted under the auspices of Magistrate Judge Hugh W. Brenneman, Jr., and was filed in the United States District Court for the Western District of Michigan on April 30, 2015. The parties have 14 days to close the case.
Attorneys Robert Corn-Revere, Ronald London, and Lisa Zycherman of the law firm Davis Wright Tremaine have represented all of the Stand Up For Speech student and faculty plaintiffs, including KPC. FIRE has coordinated nine Stand Up For Speech lawsuits to date; four remain ongoing.
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, freedom of expression, academic freedom, due process, 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.
Katie Barrows, Communications Coordinator, FIRE: 215-717-3473; firstname.lastname@example.org
Photo credit: Josh Sanseri