UPDATE: Lawsuit against U. of Washington highlights costs of campus free speech fights
UPDATE, Feb. 12, 2018 — Invitation of a speaker from a right-wing group, Patriot Prayer, by the group College Republicans resulted in several arrests after the even drew counter protestors, reports Diverse. Five individuals were arrested for disorderly behavior, and police had to respond with pepper spray as the protest became tense and results in skirmishes. The outcome of the event follows a letter from the institution's president warning that violence could result from the rally.
UPDATE, Feb. 9, 2018 — A federal judge has issued a temporary injunction that would banning the University of Washington from issuing a $17,000 security to the campus group College Republicans over its request to invite Joey Gibson of the right-wing group, Patriot Prayer, to campus, reports the Chronicle of Higher Education. In a message to the campus, President Ana Mari Cauce still encouraged members of the community to avoid the event, as authorities had "credible information that groups from outside the UW community are planning to join the event with the intent to instigate violence."
- The College Republicans group at the University of Washington planned on suing the university over a $17,000 security fee attached to the group’s request to hold a campus rally with controversial conservative speaker Joey Gibson. A federal judge, however, has issued a temporary injunction banning the institution from charging the group. Gibson is the founder of Patriot Prayer, a conservative group whose previous events have sparked violent protests, reports The Chronicle of Higher Education.
- The College Republicans said the hefty fee imposed an illegal restriction on the right to free speech. In the letter to the university’s president Ana Mari Cauce, the group’s lawyer said the fee was issued because of planned counter demonstrations and potential backlash, and called the fee an unconstitutional “heckler’s veto.” In the lawsuit, the president of the College Republicans said the fee rewarded intolerance. Cauce had written in a letter to the campus that students ought to avoid the event as violence may result. An update from Diverse confirms several people were arrested as a result of skirmishes from the event.
- University officials denied that the fee was tied to group's politics; they said that the institution could no longer afford the significant costs associated with such events, and that the $17,000 would not even cover the total event costs. A campus security official said cost estimates were based on objective criteria that examined past demonstrations held by the speaker and by the campus group. "The UW has gone to great lengths to support this student group’s right to invite speakers, including an event in January 2017 where UWPD’s own security costs exceeded $20,000, and the student group paid less than half of that amount,” police chief John Vinson wrote in a statement as quoted by The Chronicle.
Colleges are rightfully concerned about costs, as the price of securing potentially disruptive events can be staggering. Depending on the speaker and the occasion, security costs could reach into the hundreds of thousands of dollars. But denying speakers can also come with a different type of cost. Several universities are being sued for restrictive security fees, and powerful state lawmakers are attempting to wrestle away the authority of institutions to handle these matters.
There are some effective ways for handling these potential controversies. Communication is everything. College administrators and board of trustee members should be aware of events and the mood on campus regarding certain issues. Administrators should look to facilitate conversations when possible. During a panel discussion on free speech at the Association of American Colleges and Universities conference this year, Jonathan R. Alger, president of James Madison University explained this is the time for institutions to start thinking more strategically.
"It's not a matter of whether, it's a matter of when," said Alger. "This is a time to be reviewing policies and procedures for things like handling hecklers. ... It's important to be aware of campus security and think what might happen when something is triggering."
Moreover, having clear standards for respectful dialogue can take the hot air out of heated debates before they blow up. Overall, campuses need a plan for making sure the right people are notified and in place to handle controversies and to respond to all the moving parts. At the same panel, Jeffrey Trammell, former rector at William & Mary, said open dialogue with officials is key.
"From the perspective of a governing board member, dialogue is really important to the extent the leaders on campus and the faculty let the board know when incidents are happening," said Trammell.
- The Chronicle of Higher Education Security Costs Loom Larger in Campus Free-Speech Fights. A Lawsuit Shows Why.
- The Chronicle Of Higher Education As U. of Washington Braces for Right-Wing Rally, Judge Bars It From Charging Security Fee
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