The Alliance Defending Freedom is accusing the University of Pittsburgh of trying to prevent a scheduled speech by conservative commentator Ben Shapiro by charging the sponsoring organization large fees based on the possibility of “controversy” or “protests.”
“The U.S. Supreme Court has made it clear: Public universities can’t enact policies that stifle free speech simply because administrators fear protesters might show up or students might be offended,” wrote ADF Senior Counsel Jonathan Larcomb in a letter to the university.
“The reason is simple: Speech isn’t free if the speaker can be forced to pay money simply because somebody may object. The Supreme Court has specifically stated that security fees, such as the ones Pitt has assessed, aren’t constitutionally permissible.”
Young America’s Foundation and a student group scheduled a Nov. 14 speech by the New York Times bestselling author.
But just two days before the event, university officials demanded more than $5,500 in “security costs” because they feared “controversy” and “protests” in opposition to Shapiro’s speech.
The sponsors objected to the fees, and ADF’s letter to the school demands that they be rescinded.
The students had followed the university’s process for scheduling the event, informing officials months ahead of time.
“In addition, YAF previously signed a contract with the university on Oct. 18 on Shapiro’s behalf, stating unequivocally that the university would provide Pitt Police Security and ‘all house personnel necessary’ for the event,” ADF said.
Nevertheless, two days before the event, “the university breached its contract with YAF and assessed an additional fee based on the anticipated content and views of Shapiro’s speech and the prediction that students would find offense and conduct protests,” ADF said.
ADF contends that’s not allowed.
“The Supreme Court made clear, ‘[s]peech cannot be financially burdened, any more than it can be punished or banned, simply because it might offend a hostile mob.’ Imposing security fees based on the beliefs offered by YAF, College Republicans and their speaker – Ben Shapiro – is viewpoint discrimination,” the letter said.
“Today’s college students will be tomorrow’s legislators, judges, educators, and voters. That’s why it’s so important that public colleges and universities demonstrate the First Amendment values they are supposed to be teaching to students,” said Tyson Langhofer, director of the ADF Center for Academic Freedom. “Pitt should be modeling this for its students, and a good first step would be to end its unconstitutional policy that threatens to silence minority viewpoints.”
The letter says the university must change its policy.
“University guidelines allow for the assessment of fees based on the potential negative reactions of listeners. Per university guidelines, school administrators must consider ‘prior security concerns at speaker’s past presentations’ and ‘other events taking place on campus.’ Both of these factors are content-based because both require university officials to factor safety concerns created by protestors at the University of Pittsburgh and at other universities. ‘Listeners’ reaction to speech is not a content-neutral basis for regulation.’ As a result, Pitt’s own policy codifies an unconstitutional heckler’s veto that stifles minority viewpoints,” it said.
That Pitt was making judgments based on the content of the speech isn’t in doubt, since Lt. James Kenna of the university’s police department admitted in an email that the content of Shapiro’s speech contributed to the high security fee.
“He attested that of the ‘different variables’ that he considered when calculating the security fee, ‘some sort of controversy’ was a factor. He also stated in the email that he considered ‘things like protests,'” the letter explained.
However, university spokesman Joe Miksch insisted otherwise. In a statement to WND he claimed “the content and viewpoint of the speaker’s or performer’s message and the community’s reaction or expected reaction to the event will not be considered when determining the security fee.”
But he conceded that “safety concerns” are taken into account.
His statement: “Pitt Student Affairs guidelines generally require the hosting student organization to cover security costs. University Police and the Dean of Students determine security needs by evaluating factors such as anticipated audience size, location of the event, access level to the event (open to the University community, ticketed, invitation only), health and safety concerns, etc. Consistent with the First Amendment, the content and viewpoint of the speaker’s or performer’s message and the community’s reaction or expected reaction to the event will not be considered when determining the security fee to be paid by the hosting organization. We do not disclose the cost of these events to the public.”
The university even posted on its website days before Shapiro appeared a lecture titled “Ways to respond when you disagree with a speaker.”
The letter asks Pitt to rescind the assessment of fees and revise its guidelines.