A New Threat to Free Speech on Campus · 22 February 2010
This past fall, a student group known as “Temple University Purpose” (TUP) invited the controversial Dutch politician Geert Wilders to give a speech on campus. Wilders, one of the leading European critics of Islamism and a possible future prime minister in the Netherlands, was slated to show Fitna, his provocative documentary showing how Muslim jihadists draw their inspiration from the Koran not by distorting its message but by taking its mandates literally. When finalizing the arrangements for Wilders’ appearance, TUP’s student leaders and Temple administrators agreed that the university would cover the necessary security costs for the event, as it does for all speakers. But as campus leftists stepped up attacks on administrators for allowing Wilders’ appearance, the university began to look for the exit sign. It settled on a back handed way of throttling free speech that is increasingly being employed by other schools, USC and UC Santa Barbara among them—forcing conservative student groups to pay costs for controversial speakers whose appearances become security problems because the campus left threatens violently to disrupt them.
When word of Wilders’ scheduled appearance was made public, Temple’s Muslim Students Association (MSA) pressured the administration to cancel the event. Despite its pedigree as a descendant of the Muslim Brotherhood, Temple’s MSA has standing with school administrators as an ethnic grievance group. But it was the implied threat behind their aggrieved protests about the speech that got the university’s attention—to raise hell if Wilders was allowed to appear. Yet Temple was in a bind because it had already okayed the event. Wilders might be controversial, but he was a figure of international stature. However provocative his message, suddenly reversing course and subjecting it to heavy handed censorship would cast the university in a bad light.
Temple let the Dutch politician complete his presentation, though the question-and-answer session had to be cut short when a number of students shouted threats at him, forcing security men to escort him from the stage. But six weeks after the event, on December 3, TUP received an unexpected $800 invoice from Temple University – to cover the costs associated with having provided extra security personnel “to secure the room and building” for Wilders’ appearance. When TUP’s interim president Brittany Walsh reminded Temple administrators, in writing, that they had agreed to pay any extra security costs associated with Wilders’ appearance, she was stonewalled. Walsh and TUP turned to the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education (FIRE), a nonprofit organization dedicated to the free speech rights of students.
FIRE vice president Robert Shibley was shocked by the way Temple had used the fees to cast a chill on campus free speech and also, in effect, to bankrupt TUP and make it unable to bring other conservative speakers to campus. “In our nation,” Shirley said, “it is unconstitutional to charge a student group extra fees for security simply because a speaker’s views are controversial or don’t meet with the approval of Temple University administrators.” In a letter to Temple president Ann Weaver Hart, FIRE cited the U.S. Supreme Court’s 1992 decision in Forsyth County v. Nationalist Movement, which determined that a local government could not charge higher-than-customary fees for police protection at events simply because they were controversial – reasoning that “speech cannot be financially burdened, any more than it can be punished or banned, simply because it might offend a hostile mob.” As a public university, Temple was bound to abide by the Supreme Court’s decision. Just last week Valerie I. Harrison, Temple’s associate university counsel, notified FIRE that the school was waiving the $800 fee for TUP, though she offered no explanation for the decision.
But Temple’s retreat does not mean that this novel means of throttling free speech has been abandoned by administrators anxious to placate campus radicals. A similar controversy arose last November at the University of Southern California (USC), when the College Republicans hosted an appearance by guest speaker David Horowitz. The group was subsequently billed $1,400, ostensibly to cover the cost of additional security that the university had unilaterally arranged for the event. Ultimately a few angry trustees were able to convince the administration to drop these extra charges, although, in a manner reminiscent of the Temple case, USC’s administrators offered no explanation as to why they had reversed course.
Now another confrontation is brewing, this time at UC Santa Barbara (UCSB), where former George W. Bush adviser Karl Rove is slated to speak (and introduce his new book, Courage and Consequence) on February 25, at the invitation of the school’s College Republicans. Up to now, the projected cost of the event was expected to be $25,000, of which more than half ($12,933) would be covered by Associated Students, a nonprofit organization funded by undergraduate fees. But now, a local group known as SB Anti War, characterizing Rove as a “war criminal,” has announced that it plans to protest the event; some members have threatened to throw paint on Rove, leaving the implication that significant violence was possible if the event went forward.
According to Ryan McNicholas, the College Republicans’ event coordinator, the protest being organized by the left has caused security costs for Rove’s appearance to skyrocket. “Because of protester threatens to throw paint on Rove,” he says, “we have had to redirect more of the funds we received into security costs…. It’s costing us somewhere around $900 an hour to have all the Campus Security Officers and UCPD officers necessary to secure the area. And it’s absolutely ridiculous to force a small organization, like College Republicans, to foot that bill.”
In addition to its plans to demonstrate against Rove’s appearance, SB Anti War has been collecting signatures in an effort to rescind the funding that Associated Students has pledged for the event. The vice president of Associated Students, Chris Wendle, says the original decision to fund the Rove event was unrelated to latter’s character or political persuasion. Rather, it was in accordance with the legal code of even handedness that governs Associated Students. “We have to follow the rules,” Wendle explains. “We’re not going to debate the political opinion of an event, regardless of whether or not it’s Karl Rove. Basically, our decision to provide funding was objective.”
It remains to be seen whether the UCSB College Republicans, like Temple University Purpose and the USC College Republicans before them, will be able to fight off a campus left and its enablers in the administration trying asphyxiate their first amendment rights by a technique morally akin to the poll tax in the Jim Crow South. But even if they do, the era of fees and assessments to keep conservative groups from bringing another point of view onto the monochromatic university is upon us.