– Alliance Defending Freedom sent a letter
Monday to the University of Pittsburgh on behalf of Young America’s Foundation and a student group assessed unconstitutional fees for a Nov. 14 YAF-sponsored event featuring New York Times
bestselling author and conservative commentator Ben Shapiro.
Just two days before the event, the university informed sponsoring student organization College Republicans that the event would be cancelled if they didn’t agree to pay more than $5,500 in security costs based on the possibility of “controversy” and “protests” in opposition to Shapiro. The letter asks the university to rescind the fee assessment and modify its policy.
“The U.S. Supreme Court has made it clear: Public universities can’t enact policies that stifle free speech simply because administrators fear protestors might show up or students might be offended,” said ADF Senior Counsel Jonathan Larcomb. “The reason for that 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.”
Students followed the university’s policies and procedures for scheduling the Shapiro event, notifying the university of their plans several months in advance. 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. Nonetheless, 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.
As the ADF letter explains, “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 continues: “Further, 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.”
“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 ADF Senior Counsel 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.”