Tuesday, August 03, 2010

Controversy Taxes

The 5th Circuit Court of Appeals ruling in Sonnier v. Crain is not a monument for free speech, but the court gets it partly right on a side issue: the unlimited power of colleges to impose security fees on student groups and others against their will.

As I commented on the Inside Higher Ed story, while I'm disturbed by the 7-day advance notice requirements on speakers, the security fee part of the ruling is fairly good. However, the title of this article should be "You Can't Arbitrarily Charge for Controversy." It will be quite easy for colleges to produce guidelines that don't give the university arbitrary authority on security fees; this is just another legal hoop to jump through, not a fundamental change in legal rules.

The courts should go even further and ban the use of university-imposed security fees altogether. After all, the university can't charge a professor for security if he's controversial and receives threats. A university can't charge the victims of crime for receiving threats or anything else against them. A university can't charge the organizers of a protest for the police sent to monitor that protest. So why should they be able to charge for the security that the university deems necessary to protect an event? If you want to encourage threats and discourage free speech, security fees are probably the best way to do it. As another comment noted, it's quite easy to bankrupt a typical student group with security fees and make it impossible to organize events. All an administration would need to do is declare it controversial and require obscene amounts of security. All an individual would need to do is make a vague allusion to a threat and suddenly a speaker gets canceled for financial reasons. This is why all reasonable unusual security fees must be paid for by the university (or the local police) for normal activities.

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