Young Conservatives of Texas are requesting a full refund from the University of Texas at Austin after the school admitted to an accounting error which overcharged students for an event featuring former Republican Sen. Rick Santorum.
Originally, UT Austin charged the Young Conservatives of Texas $654, citing high security costs and possible mass protests because of Santorum’s high profile. Young Americas Foundation accused the university of being biased against conservatives, pointing to the hefty fee and also a list of questions the Young Conservatives of Texas had to answer for University Police.
UT Austin media relations director J.B. Bird, as well as the UTA PD, issued immediate responses acknowledging that an accounting mistake was made, which involved passing on security costs to students that the school should normally cover instead. According to university policy, the correct amount that should have been charged to the student organization was $128.
Despite the partial refund, YAF’s spokesman Spencer Brown has called for the total elimination of the $128 security fee "because the assessment was the result of viewpoint discriminatory questions and unbridled discretion, both of which are unconstitutional."
In a four-page letter to UT Austin, YAF calls for, amongst other things, more stringent guidance to make sure students’ First Amendment rights are respected:
“UT-Austin can prevent future abuses by adopting ‘narrowly drawn, reasonable and definite standards’ and by applying these standards consistently. These standards do not need to be complicated; rather, in this area, simplicity is advisable.
YAF's recommendation is for UT-Austin to assign each on-campus venue with its own unique standard security fee and to post these fees online. Every on-campus venue is unique in terms of size, location, accessibility, etc. But, by predetermining security fees for specific on-campus venues, UT-Austin can ensure that all students are treated fairly and that no student is punished on the basis of the content of his or her speech.
The bottom line is that discretion needs to be removed from the hands of university officials. Students should know what their security fee will be before meeting with UTPD, rather than being surprised by the size of a fee after an event, which was the case for YCT. By adopting the standards outlined above, UT-Austin can provide much needed transparency and predictability.”
UT Austin responded by noting that the reduced security costs are actually lower than other big events held on campus in the same year using their public records request by YAF, which showed other club security fees for the year.
"As we have detailed to YAF, the university’s process for setting security fees is content-neutral and constitutional. University police ask about possible protests so they can ensure public safety but do not set charges based on that information or on the views of the group or speaker. The security fee for the Young Conservatives of Texas event last fall was $128. The public records YCT requested show this fee was below the amounts set for other student events that year, such as the 25th Annual Non-Greek Step Show, which had a fee of $629."
It is unclear who will end up footing the bill for the remaining $128.
Neil Dwyer is a graduate of the University of Miami, a political and sports broadcaster, and a freelancer writer.