You Can’t Charge for Controversy

Scott Jaschik, Inside High Ed, August 3, 2010

Let’s say a student group wants to invite Sarah Palin to campus, or Bill Ayers for that matter. Can a public university say that approval is contingent on the student group paying all extra security costs associated with such a visit?

The issue of whether charging for security keeps some views from being heard on campuses has come up at many institutions in recent years–and a federal appeals court ruling last week may make it more difficult for public colleges and universities to assert blanket authority to permit only speakers whose security costs will be covered by student groups or some sponsor. The ruling, by the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Fifth Circuit, found that such a policy at Southeastern Louisiana University was unconstitutional. Some legal observers think this could be a key ruling outside the Fifth Circuit, given the limited number of courts that have considered the question.

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The challenge to Southeastern Louisiana’s policies came from Jeremy Sonnier, a nondenominational Christian preacher who visits many college campuses to offer his views and frequently to disagree with conventional thinking about many moral issues. {snip}

Sonnier was turned away from Southeastern Louisiana when he showed up on campus one day in 2007, without having asked for permission in advance. Campus police explained that rules governed outside speakers, and a university official told Sonnier that since one requirement was to obtain permission seven days in advance, there was no way he could start speaking to a group on campus that day. He left, but sued–represented by the Alliance Defense Fund, which backs the rights of religious students and professors (and in this case speakers without direct campus ties).

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The university rules in question state the following: “The use of Southeastern Louisiana University Administration staff; University Police, city of Hammond Police, Tangipahoa Sheriffs Deputies, Louisiana State Police, or a private security company in connection with the event is at the sole discretion of the University in determining both the need for, and the strength of the security detail. The sponsoring individual(s) or organization is responsible for the cost of this security beyond that normally provided by the university, specifically those administrators/officers who must be assigned directly to the event and/or away from their normal operational duties.”

The court’s ruling said that this provision gives too much power to the university. “As the policy states, determining the additional amount of security needed is at the ‘sole discretion’ of the university; no objective factors are provided for the university to rely upon when making such a determination. Because of the unbridled discretion this provision gives to the university, we conclude that the district court abused its discretion in denying a preliminary injunction with regards to the security fee.”

Nate Kellum, senior counsel for the Alliance Defense Fund, said that the problem with requiring outside speakers to cover security costs is that “you are attaching a cost to speech, and that’s inappropriate.”

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While Sonnier has appeared on many campuses without security and didn’t request any of Southeastern Louisiana, the issue raised by Kellum–about security fees being used to justify blocking a visit or add costs to student organizations–is hardly hypothetical.

Security costs were used last year, for example, by officials at Georgia Southern University to justify calling off a visit by William Ayers, a professor of education at the University of Illinois at Chicago who was once a leader of the Weather Underground. {snip}

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Much of the ruling outside the issue of security fees would probably please the university, as its rules were largely upheld.

On these issues, courts evaluate “time-place-manner” rules. The idea is that some limits on the time, place or manner of public speech are appropriate if a public university is to operate. So a university would be within its rights to bar an outside speaker from announcing a rally in a laboratory or the library, but not keeping the person totally away from campus. {snip}

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