When the Young Americans for Freedom (YAF) chapter at Michigan State University decided to show the film “Obsession: Radical Islam’s War Against the West,” YAF members thought it would be a good idea to have security present during the screening. “Obsession” has been a hotly contested film on many campuses, plus a YAF-cosponsored campus appearance by U.S. Representative Tom Tancredo last December was interrupted first by a fire alarm, then by protesting students who wouldn’t let Tancredo continue his speech.
Michigan State responded to the request for police presence at “Obsession” by deferring to a campus policy stating that student groups hosting events must pay the overtime wages of any University Police officers assigned to those events. Michigan State Inspector Kelly Beck further told YAF President Kyle Bristow in an e-mail that if YAF refused to pay for Campus Police to attend the event, and if a protest broke out that required police intervention, that this would lead “to pulling additional police personnel from their patrol duties and thus creating a shortage of manpower to respond to emergencies in the community.” In the past when such events transpired, Beck wrote, “[t]hose groups were subsequently charged for the additional manpower necessary to bring their special event under control.” Because YAF’s budget was small, the group faced the possibility that a safe, secure, heckler-free screening of “Obsession” might not occur.
YAF contacted FIRE, and we wrote a letter to Michigan State President Lou Anna Simon on March 16, reminding her that holding students responsible for security costs at controversial events “may seem like a reasonable policy, but it is clearly unconstitutional, as it affixes a price tag to events based upon their expressive content.” FIRE cited the Supreme Court’s unequivocal decision in Forsyth County v. Nationalist Movement (1992), that “[s]peech cannot be financially burdened, any more than it can be punished or banned, simply because it might offend a hostile mob.” FIRE also wrote that holding students accountable for whatever disruptive activity resulted from responsible expression grants a “heckler’s veto” to the most disruptive members of the campus community. Such a policy chills speech on campus, because student groups unable to afford added security would be forced to cancel their events, and, as happened with the Tancredo speech, students threatening disruption would be successful in silencing speech with which they disagree.
President Simon responded to FIRE with a letter on March 20 stating that the university would assign two University Police officers, at no charge, to YAF’s event. Even though President Simon stated in that letter that the decision to provide free security was made on March 2, the YAF members report that the university did not inform them of its decision until March 20.
FIRE is pleased that Michigan State decided to live up to its constitutional requirements to assess student fees on a viewpoint-neutral basis, allowing the screening of “Obsession” to go forward. FIRE will now turn its efforts toward urging Michigan State to reform its security policy so that it cannot be used to discriminate against groups on the basis of the content of their expression; as long as the policy continues as is, the chilling effect at Michigan State will continue.