Lawsuit battle over campus free speech security costs

The University of Washington’s College Republicans sued the university last Tuesday over its decision to charge the group US$17,000 in security fees for a planned rally at the weekend featuring a controversial conservative speaker.

[This is an article from The Chronicle of Higher Education, America’s leading higher education publication. It is presented here under an agreement with University World News.]

The group called the fees “draconian and unreasonable” and argued that requiring sponsors to cover such costs is an illegal restriction on protected speech.

The university says that the fees are based on a number of objective factors, including threats of violence, and that even US$17,000 probably won’t cover the cost of securing the event.

The speaker at the centre of the dispute is Joey Gibson, founder of Patriot Prayer, a right-wing group based in Vancouver, Washington State, whose rallies have sometimes sparked confrontations between right- and left-wing demonstrators.

The standoff comes as colleges nationwide grapple with the soaring cost of securing events where provocative speakers and angry protesters can be expected to clash.

The question of who should pay for added police protection and other security measures has vexed colleges as they try to balance free speech and campus safety.

The latest controversy began when Washington’s chapter of College Republicans applied to use the campus’s central plaza, known as Red Square, on Saturday afternoon for what it described as a free-speech rally. The event was approved, with one condition – the student group would have to pay a US$17,000 security fee.

The group’s lawyer, William J Becker Jr, sent a letter to the university’s president, Ana Mari Cauce, recently threatening to sue unless the fee was cancelled.

He pointed out that a coalition of groups opposed to the event was planning a counterdemonstration. According to the group’s social-media posts, he said, it would probably try to disrupt the event.

On its website, the coalition urged people to show up for a peaceful protest against a group it says is trying “to recruit more people to their hateful organisation and spread their ideas of white supremacy”.

Requiring the College Republicans to pay a fee based on the potential reaction of those opposed to the viewpoints expressed amounts to “an unconstitutional heckler’s veto”, Becker wrote. The university is essentially charging fees based on the content of the event, which is unconstitutional, he said.

The lawsuit, filed on behalf of the College Republicans and its president, Chevy Swanson, contends that the fee rewards those “so intolerant of and hostile to hearing views they find objectionable they must threaten and/or commit violence to protect themselves from such views”.

‘Objective criteria’

In a statement last Monday, the university’s police chief, John Vinson, said that security estimates “are solely based on objective criteria, including an analysis of violence and threats to public safety by the invited speaker, attendees at previous events or the sponsoring group ¬– both in and out of the state of Washington – as well as the date, time, and location of the proposed event.” They are not based, he said, on a speaker or group’s ideology or political positions.

“The UW has gone to great lengths to support this student group’s right to invite speakers, including an event in January 2017 where UWPD’s own security costs exceeded $20,000 and the student group paid less than half of that amount,” Vinson wrote.

The university, he said, “is committed to providing a safe environment that allows speakers, their hosts, and others to be heard, but the university cannot continue to bear the significant costs associated with such events”.

The event he was referring to last January was an appearance by the right-wing provocateur Milo Yiannopoulos. A protester was shot outside the venue where Yiannopoulos, who had been invited by the Campus Republicans, was speaking.

Afterwards, the university approved a policy that allows it to pass along some of the costs of security to a campus event’s sponsoring group if an analysis indicates a strong likelihood of violence, property damage, or significant disruption.

Given what has happened at previous Patriot Prayer rallies, that’s a reasonable expectation, the university contends.

In August the Seattle police used tear gas to disperse a crowd protesting a Patriot Prayer rally. Three people were arrested, and the police confiscated several weapons, including boards and metal bars, according to local news reports.

Emotions were particularly raw at that event, which came one day after a white-supremacist rally in Charlottesville, Virginia, turned deadly.

The College Republicans say it’s unfair to penalise them, through high security fees, for threats of violence from those who oppose the group’s views.

The lawsuit describes Patriot Prayer as “an informal group of evangelical Christians formed and led by Gibson to convey a message of peace”. Even if skinheads or Nazi sympathisers occasionally show up at its rallies, its supporters contend, it is not a white-supremacist group.

The Southern Poverty Law Center counters that the group, far from being peaceful, tries to provoke left-wing violence with its rallies in largely liberal cities.
Peter F Lake, director of the Center for Excellence in Higher Education Law and Policy at Stetson University, says he expects more such disputes over security costs to wind up in court.

Precedents established by the US Supreme Court allow colleges to limit the time, place, and manner of speech, but not the content, he points out. “The court has shown a reluctance to penalise a speaker because of the reaction of the listeners,” he says. “That’s the heckler’s veto.”

Colleges are, however, permitted to charge “reasonable fees under certain circumstances”, as long as the restrictions aren’t based on the content of the speech, he says.

Ari Cohn, director of the individual-rights-defence programme at the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education, says the university needs to spell out how it estimates security costs. Otherwise, he says, it looks as if it’s simply trying to censor controversial speech.

“A university should be in the business of fostering as much expression as possible,” Cohn says. “It can’t price certain speech out of the market because it’s controversial.”

Katherine Mangan writes about community colleges, completion efforts and job training, as well as other topics in daily news. Follow her on Twitter @KatherineMangan, or email her at katherine.mangan@chronicle.com.