Victory for Freedom of Speech at University of Colorado at Boulder: University Lifts Financial Burden on Students Hosting Controversial Speakers Ward Churchill and William Ayers
BOULDER, Colo., April 20, 2009—The University of Colorado at Boulder has reversed a threat to charge excessively high security fees for a controversial event that included speeches by Ward Churchill and William Ayers. After the university threatened to bill the organizers more than $2,000 for security, the organizers of the event came to the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education (FIRE) for help.
"CU-Boulder should be commended for respecting freedom of speech," FIRE President Greg Lukianoff said. "CU-Boulder joins a growing list of public universities that now understand that controversial speech may not be burdened simply because it is contentious enough to bring out protesters."
Churchill and Ayers spoke on March 5 at an event cosponsored by Students for True Academic Freedom and other CU-Boulder student groups. Prior to the event, CU-Boulder spokesman Bronson Hilliard stated that Students for True Academic Freedom would be billed for security partly on the basis of a potentially hostile audience reaction to the speakers. The police security bill was going to be $2,203.42, plus fees for parking and building security.
On March 18, FIRE wrote Interim Chancellor Phil DiStefano, pointing out that any requirement 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, Forsyth County v. Nationalist Movement (1992), stated, "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."
CU-Boulder replied on March 30, asking for more time to respond. On April 1, Students for True Academic Freedom leader Sean Daly e-mailed CU-Boulder Dean of Students and Associate Vice Chancellor for Student Affairs Deborah Coffin, pointing out that after FIRE recently intervened at the University of California at Berkeley, Berkeley reduced unconstitutional security fees by thousands of dollars for a controversial speech by Elan Journo on "America’s Stake in the Arab-Israeli Conflict."
Soon after, CU-Boulder relented, and Coffin confirmed that CU-Boulder would not charge any security fee for the police.
"CU-Boulder is the third public college this year to reverse these unconstitutional security fees under pressure from FIRE and the First Amendment," Adam Kissel, Director of FIRE’s Individual Rights Defense Program, said. In addition to the victories at CU-Boulder and UC Berkeley, FIRE successfully pressured the University of Massachusetts Amherst last week to retreat from a $725 security fee for a controversial speech by Don Feder on "hate crimes."
FIRE is a nonprofit educational foundation that unites civil rights and civil liberties leaders, scholars, journalists, and public intellectuals from across the political and ideological spectrum on behalf of individual rights, due process, freedom of expression, academic freedom, and rights of conscience at our nation’s colleges and universities. FIRE’s efforts to preserve liberty on campuses across America are detailed at thefire.org.
Adam Kissel, Director, FIRE’s Individual Rights Defense Program: 215-717-3473; [email protected]
Phil DiStefano, Interim Chancellor, University of Colorado at Boulder: 303-492-8908; [email protected]