College administrators across the country have ramped up a particularly unique form of censorship meant to silence conservative and libertarian speakers on campuses: exorbitant speaker fees. To stifle ideas deemed too “controversial,” administrators allow events or speakers to proceed as planned, but then charge student groups outrageous security fees hours or days before a scheduled event.
These fees are levied under the guise of extra security costs or measures, however, the actual effect is more akin to a deterrent. If the student group cannot raise the funds to cover these fees, then they must cancel the event.
In bringing these speakers to campus, some of which, admittedly, may express detestable ideas, student groups, such as the Young Americans for Liberty and College Republicans, and the university are in no way endorsing the speaker or his/her viewpoints. However, using speaker fees to silence free speech only serves to limit First Amendment rights and is equivalent in nature to disinviting or banning speakers altogether.
These incidents are numerous, but the following five examples are particularly egregious on account of extremely high fees and dubious justifications that serve to muffle certain voices. Many of the fees were dropped after the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education, also known as FIRE, stepped in to protect students’ freedom of speech. Here are some of the most ridiculous throughout the years:
Milo Yiannopoulos at the University of Alabama
The University of Alabama imposed a fee of $7,000 on the College Republicans chapter which sought to host Milo Yiannopoulos in 2016, which effectively restricted the group’s ability to hold the event.
The Crimson White, a University of Alabama student newspaper, wrote: “On a campus that keeps 100,000 people safe on game day, no amount of ‘security concerns’ could be a legitimate reason for this event to cancel.”
Just a few days before the event, the University of Alabama revoked its unconstitutional demands and rescinded the security fee, stating that “the University of Alabama supports free speech and welcomes diverse speakers to our campus. As with all speakers, the views of Mr. Yiannopoulos do not necessarily reflect the views of the university.”
Elan Journo at the University of California, Berkeley
In an attempt to foreclose any controversial discussion of the Israel-Palestine conflict, University of California, Berkeley administrators billed the Objectivist Club of Berkeley an estimated security fee of $3,732.33 in 2009, which would have canceled Elan Journo’s lecture, “America’s Stake in the Arab-Israeli Conflict.”
FIRE sent a letter to the UC Berkeley administration, stating, “By holding student organizations hosting expressive events responsible for whatever disruptive activity results from the controversy of these events, Berkeley grants a 'heckler’s veto' to the most disruptive members of the university community. Individuals wishing to silence speech with which they disagree merely have to threaten to protest, and student groups not able to furnish adequate funds for security will be forced to cancel their events. In such a situation, disruptive protests win out over responsible expressive activity. Controversial speech cannot be unduly burdened simply because it is controversial.”
The letter was successful and UC Berkeley allowed the event to go ahead as planned.
Ward Churchill and William Ayers at the University of Colorado, Boulder
Students for True Academic Freedom at the University of Colorado Boulder planned to bring Ward Churchill and William Ayers to campus in 2009, but the college’s bureaucratic administration threatened to inflict a security fee of more than $2,000 on the club. While the fee was purported to cover parking and extra police for the venue, it would have effectively ended the event before it ever began.
FIRE wrote to Interim Chancellor Phil DiStefano, pointing out that anything requiring that student organizations hosting controversial events pay for extra security is unconstitutional because it affixes a price tag to events on the basis of their expressive content. The relevant Supreme Court decision, the 1992 Forsyth County v. Nationalist Movement, states, “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.”
After receiving this notice from FIRE, CU relented and Deborah Coffin, the dean of students and vice chancellor of student affairs, confirmed that CU would not charge any fee for police presence.
Milo Yiannopoulos at the University of New Mexico
According to FIRE, the University of New Mexico attempted to charge two students groups $3,400 for “additional security” deemed necessary by the controversial nature of Yiannopoulos in early 2017. The College Republicans and Young Americans for Liberty chapters had planned the speech for months prior to receiving notice of the security bill.
Two weeks before the event, the university told both groups that they needed to pay $3,400 in security fees if they wished to proceed. The last-minute security fee demand was apparently required by the university’s Policy 2230, which authorizes imposing a “speech tax” on student groups based on the “controversial nature of speakers or subjects” they invite.
FIRE wrote to the University of New Mexico, explaining that such a policy is directly unconstitutional. Immediately afterward, University President Chaouki Abdallah announced “the immediate suspension and application of that portion of the policy that results in fees for security and police protection, pending a thorough policy review.” He also noted that “the University of New Mexico is committed to the principles of free speech, and values our role as a marketplace of ideas in the community.”
David Horowitz at the University of Wisconsin-Madison
College Republicans at the University of Wisconsin-Madison planned to hold a speech by David Horowitz, a conservative pundit and the founder of the David Horowitz Freedom Center, in 2007.
In a slightly different fashion, students were charged a $1,300 speaking fee after the speech went on without incident. The student group could not pay the “afterthought” security fee so the school was forced to cover the fee. However, their unconstitutional attempt to suppress a certain set of ideas did not go unnoticed. According to the UW-Madison College Democrats Chair Oliver Kiefer, “For me to know that my free speech will be protected, everyone else’s free speech should also be protected.”
Bonus: Ben Shapiro at the University of California, Berkeley
When students from the College Republicans and the Young Americans for Freedom invited Ben Shapiro to speak at the University of California, Berkeley in Fall 2017, administrators first said they could not provide a venue for him on the already-publicized date. Then, administrators demanded the students pay up to $15,738 in order compensate for "basic security costs." After much back and forth, the university offered a venue and security for the event, ultimately costing $600,000 which was covered mostly by the university and not the students.
Are these isolated incidents?
These examples are some of the most egregious over the years, but every security fee and anti-speech policy contributes to the often-mentioned “chilling effect” on campus discourse. If colleges and universities want to encourage the free exchange of ideas among their students, they must do away with these fees and allow student groups to act, undeterred by administrators.
Ian O’Shaughnessy studies Classics, History, and Political Science at Colorado College. He is a Media Ambassador and a Chapter Vice President for Young Americans for Liberty.