University of Washington settles with College Republicans over unfair security fees (Is Berkeley next?)

In February, College Republicans at the University of Washington wanted to hold a rally with the group Patriot Prayer. The University said they could only hold the rally if they agreed to pay a $17,000 security fee. The College Republicans sued and today the school reached a $127,000 settlement with their attorneys. From the Seattle Times:

The College Republicans argued that the security fee unconstitutionally infringed upon their First Amendment freedom of speech rights by making it unaffordable for them to host events that could lead to violent protests. Under the terms of the settlement, the UW will pay $127,000 in legal fees to the College Republicans’ attorneys. The UW will also no longer charge any student groups a security fee for speakers, unless the group specifically asks for security to be present…

In their lawsuit, the College Republicans argued that they and other politically conservative campus groups were being discriminated against when the UW charged “exorbitant event fees to provide increased security needed to thwart violent protests from leftwing political activists,” according to a statement by Freedom X, a California nonprofit law and advocacy firm that defended the club.

UW wasn’t only going up against the College Republicans and their representatives. Twenty-three members of the UW law school also endorsed a letter which argued the fee was a violation of the First Amendment and encouraging the school to settle. The letter makes clear that only conservative groups are facing high fees because only their views are likely to attract a hostile (progressive) audience in the pacific northwest.

The current University of Washington policy of charging student groups a substantial fee for events at which extremely unpopular ideas are expressed is a classic example of the viewpoint-based burden that Forsyth County forbids.  Whether a student group is charged such a fee, and the amount of that fee, depend entirely on whether the views to be expressed at an event are likely to attract a hostile audience.  If, instead of inviting a speaker from Patriot Prayer, the College Republicans had arranged for a speech by the head of the NAACP or Planned Parenthood, there would have been no hostile audience, and no $17,000 fee imposed by the University.  The College Republicans cannot be required to pay a fee that would not be imposed on other organizations which invite speakers whose views on controversial issues such as race, abortion, or gender discrimination, are more liberal and thus, in this region of the nation, more popular…

The free exchange of ideas on our campus is not limited to ideas that are thoughtful, well informed, peer-reviewed, or fair. Particularly in a university community, we understand that the best antidote to ill-considered speech is more speech: persistent reasoning, a sound marshaling of actual facts, and an appeal to the values that are the essence of the American idea.  We understand as well the importance of avoiding the practice, now all too common in the political sphere, of summarily branding as evil or malicious anyone with whom we disagree.

The good news here is that this extension of the heckler’s veto via security fees has lost in this case. But this isn’t the only place where College Republicans have sued their own school over a security policy that seems to only impact one side of the partisan divide. The College Republicans at Berkeley sued their school last year and Berkeley’s response was very similar to the argument made by UW, i.e. we’re just assessing risk and charging a fee based on that, not discriminating against a viewpoint.

In April a judge refused to dismiss the discrimination case against Berkeley. At issue is the fee the school charged to bring Ben Shapiro to campus while charging another group much less to bring Supreme Court Justice Sonia Sotomayor to campus. Hopefully, this UW settlement is a sign of things to come at Berkeley.