UCLA Forced to Uphold Free Speech
By now many current college students and recent graduates are likely to be familiar with the controversy surrounding the treatment of free speech within the institution of higher education – the very institution that has historically been perceived as the bastion for free expression of even the most contentious viewpoints. It has become an unfortunate reality to periodically hear about yet another speaker event being disrupted by protests that, at best, cause intermittent disruptions and, at worst, threaten the safety of other people when they erupt into violence.
To be sure, UCLA has fortunately been spared from having been turned into a battleground for clashes between fanatical protesters and overzealous counter protesters, but the same cannot be said elsewhere. In particular, UC Berkeley and the University of Washington are among the most notable examples of how the mere presence of controversial speakers, such as the well-known provocateur Milo Yiannopoulos, leave campuses marred by skirmishes from the riots, in addition to vandalism on parts of the Berkeley campus and downtown area. This episode, along with many others on campuses across the nation, raises questions about the extent to which colleges – with particular attention to public universities bound by the First Amendment – are responsible for taking measures to protect the free speech rights of potentially polarizing speakers.
In response to the safety concerns that unfortunately emerge when speakers with unpopular ideas are invited, several college administrators have insisted on implementing strong security measures for any event deemed to be sufficiently controversial. A recurring problem, however, has arisen when universities attempt to recoup their expenses by passing on this cost to the student groups responsible for hosting such events. For instance, UCLA administration decided last November to assess the Bruin Republicans with expensive security fees if it could not comply with an arbitrary policy regarding attendance when hosting conservative columnist and radio host Ben Shapiro. It soon retracted after Bruin Republican’s legal representation sent the university a letter demanding a revision of its existing policies.
Initially, it may strike some as a little bit odd that UCLA would be required to cover the charges of security for the Shapiro event, especially if one believed the responsibility of the administration ends at permitting the Bruin Republicans to host the speaker. Indeed, the editorial board of the UCLA campus newspaper, The Daily Bruin, published an opinion piece in the days leading up to the Shapiro event criticizing the administration’s decision to concede to the Bruin Republicans’ demands and pay for the club’s security costs. The article suggests that students groups ought to be responsible for covering their “basic security costs.”
However, the critics of this policy omit the fact that even if administrators allow the event to take place, the very assessment of these security fees can curb the expression of free speech. Requiring student groups to pay for security costs would effectively reward those who seek to interrupt and shut down ideologically different speakers with a heckler’s veto. The slightest hint of agitation from dissenting protesters would result in the imposition of security fees on student organizations that may cancel events if unable to afford these payments. It is therefore the responsibility of colleges to ensure that the marketplace of ideas is not disrupted on the basis that certain beliefs may come across as controversial or even offensive.
In the case of UCLA, a public university, the administration’s duty to uphold the First Amendment extends to security, as suggested federal district court Judge Marsha Pechman, who invalidated the University of Washington’s attempt to burden its College Republicans with $17,000 in security costs for hosting a divisive speaker. Judge Pechman reasoned that such an expensive bill had a “chilling” effect on the club’s constitutionally protected right to free speech.
If UCLA has been forced to pay an excessive price to uphold its commitment to free speech and a free exchange of ideas, blaming rioters and hecklers seems prudent, whose actions necessitate precautions by administrators to protect the student body from danger rather than the speakers themselves.
Ultimately, whether it is a good idea for student organizations to invite controversial speakers is perhaps debatable, but in either case, UCLA cannot punish these groups for doing so if the school wishes to remain true to one of its bedrock principles.