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EDITORIAL: Courts won't stand for left-wing campus censors

By: The Gazette editorial board
February 13, 2018 Updated: February 13, 2018 at 7:44 am
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photo - Left-wing protesters cause cancellation of a right-wing speech at the University of California-Berkeley (AP)
Left-wing protesters cause cancellation of a right-wing speech at the University of California-Berkeley (AP) 

A 2016 study published in Econ Journal Watch documented findings that surprised no one. Liberals outnumber conservatives on college faculties by a ratio of 12-to-1.

Organized students attempt balance by inviting high-profile conservatives to speak on campus. College administrators often shut down the talks for the sake of "public safety."

The University of California, Berkeley, canceled a speech by Ann Coulter last year because left-wing activists threatened a violent protest. The university chose censorship instead of its responsibility to subdue violence and defend free speech — aka, uphold the law on campus.

More frequently, right-of-center students cancel conservative talks. They do so after university officials hit them with security fees associated with anticipated violence by organized mobs. Think about it this way: A perpetrator calls to threaten a crime, so police levy a fee against the targeted victim.

Berkeley administrators tried to stop a speech by Harvard Law School graduate Ben Shapiro last fall. They billed the university's Young Americans for Freedom chapter $16,000 in extra security costs, ostensibly to hedge against threatened protests of their speaker. The students fought back and won.

"Every security fee and anti-speech policy contributes the often-mentioned 'chilling effect' on campus discourse," wrote Colorado College student Ian O'Shaughnessy in a Dec. 31 article for the Washington Examiner. "If colleges and universities want to encourage the free exchange of ideas among their students, they must do away with these fees and allow student groups to act, undeterred by administrators."

Throughout higher education, administrators should learn they cannot legally burden conservative groups financially for bringing minority views to campus. The U.S. Supreme Court made this perfectly clear in its 1992 ruling in Forsyth County v. Nationalist Movement, where the majority said "Speech cannot be financially burdened, any more than it can be punished or banned, simply because it might offend a hostile mob."

A ruling last week provides hope courts will enforce the law against hostile schemes designed to silence free speech on campus.

College Republicans at the University of Washington invited Patriot Prayer to speak on campus Feb. 10. Founded by Japanese-American Joey Gibson, Patriot Prayer states a mission to support the First Amendment and "liberate conservatives on the West Coast."

University of Washington administrators hit College Republicans with a bill of $17,000 for security expenses caused by an anticipated left-wing mob. UW President Ana Mari Cauce blogged Feb. 9 about "credible information that groups from outside the UW community are planning to join the event with the intent to instigate violence."

Speech organizers said "no way" to the fee, and asked a federal judge for a temporary injunction against it. They won Feb. 9, a day before Saturday's speech, because the law is on their side.

"The court finds that the Security Fee Policy is neither reasonable nor viewpoint neutral," wrote U.S. District Court Judge Marsha Pechman. She explained the university's fee would irreparably harm the Republican students by depriving them, even temporarily, their First Amendment rights. She cited case law and wrote "a reasonable restriction is one that does not suppress speech 'merely because public officials oppose the speaker's view.'"

The ruling stopped the fee but did not deter the administration from trying to mitigate the influence of Patriot Prayer's message. Cauce encouraged students "to avoid" the event "to ensure your own personal safety."

If a speech is too risky for students, the administration is at fault. It has an obligation to simultaneously defend free speech, academic freedom, and public safety for all. It is responsible for protecting peaceable assemblies from protesters threatening violence.

Institutions of higher education should advocate the peaceful, free flow of competing ideas. They should stand for a platform of content neutrality, expecting police departments to uphold and defend the First Amendment from violent attacks. They have failed to do so, to favor a predominant institutionalized ideology as a cause higher than the First Amendment. They can expect the courts to commandeer their public venues, as Judge Pechman did, and uphold free speech.

The Gazette editorial board

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