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Security fees and civil rights

Published: March 27, 2009
Section: Opinions


The excessive and exorbitant security fees that are essentially preventing students from bringing Bill Ayers and Robert H. King may be unconstitutional or violate our student righats and responsibilities rights.

The Foundation For Individual Rights in Education has recently become involved in a number of similar cases in Berkley and University of Colorado at Berkley arguing that excessive security fees are a form of prior restraint that unfairly burdens speech. This argument is amply backed up by Supreme Court precedent such as the Supreme Court’s ruling in Forsyth County v. Nationalist Movement, 505 U.S. 123 (1992), which prohibits increasing a security fee because of a potentially hostile audience: “Listeners’ reaction to speech is not a content-neutral basis for regulation…. Speech cannot be financially burdened, any more than it can be punished or banned, simply because it might offend a hostile mob.” Thus, the university’s actions can be seen us unduly punishing the expression of speech just because a large portion of students may respond critically.

“Charging for extra security because of a potentially hostile audience grants the most disruptive or violent hecklers a veto over controversial events and creates an incentive for that kind of behavior,” Greg Lukianoff, FIRE’s President, said. “It’s also unconstitutional at a public college or university.”

While it is true that Brandeis is a private university and thus not subject to the same restrictions, it is also true that Brandeis can be held accountable for its contractual obligations such as those put into print in our student Rights and Responsibilities handbook.

Section 13 of the Rights and Responsibilities reads

“ University facilities are available for activities consistent with the University’s educational, social, and cultural goals. The University does not impose prior restraints upon the subject matter or point of view expressed by any person or group using its facilities.”

Thus, we can be said to have a similar promise as to that extended by the constitutional guarantee of free speech. It is also true that section 13.2 of the Rights and Responsibilities does give ultimate deciding power to the administration:

“13.2 The requirements for safety and security at the event will be based upon a timely review by the Associate Vice President of University Services. Requirements may be appealed to the Associate Vice President for Campus Operations, who will make the final decision. This review will be based upon such factors as the possibility of criminal acts, the risk of harm to persons or property, and crowd control.”

Still, a reasonable claim can be said that this clause is subordinate to the prior one guaranteeing that prior restraint will not be exercised. Because our courts have clearly shown that financial burdens are equivalent to content restrictions, it can be argued that the University is at fault.

Students at Berkley pursued this train of argumentation bolstered by the support of FIRE had had the security cost for a controversial event reduced from 3,000 dollars to 460 dollars for two police officers. The university agreed to use content neutral criteria such as the expected number of attendees, the nature of and number of exits from the room for the event, whether money would be exchanged, and so on; rather than biased expectations of protests or opposition and so were able to reach a reasonable total.

At UC Bolder, students brought Ayers as well as former CU professor Ward Churchill to speak and the event was successfully carried out without disruption. The university has attempted after the fact to bring a security fee of more than 2,000 dollars while neither Ayers nor Churchill required or needed added security. The students at Bolder are proudly refusing to pay an unjust fee and rearing up for a legal battle with the aid of FIRE.

What is obvious from these two examples is that a decent case can be made that our University is acting to suppress student speech by prohibitively costing such an event. This action may violate our student rights and thus even be prosecutable in court. What’s clear is that the principle at stake here is a vital one. We cannot allow the fear of protests to stop us from bringing speakers to campus and from being exposed to unique ideas and views.