Advancing Religious Liberty
12/31/13 at 11:49 AM 0 Comments

On Campus, Should You Be Forced to Pay a Price for Free Speech?

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Photo: Flickr/Nikopoley - Creative Commons
University at Buffalo sign

During the 1960s, U.S. college campuses gave birth to the free speech movement. Students protested the Vietnam War and agitated for the right to voice unpopular and anti-establishment ideas.

Back in those days, these students were hailed as cultural heroes by many in the media.

But today, students who voice unpopular ideas are facing pressures never imagined by their predecessors.

Many public universities are seeking to silence campus groups with unpopular ideas by charging heavy fees when the student group hosts events the administration deems too controversial.

And all too often, the campus groups singled out for these fees are Christian or conservative.

This is exactly what happened to a pro-life student group at the University at Buffalo. The group hosted a debate on the morality of abortion and was charged fees for campus security. But at the same time and in the same building as the pro-life debate, another student group hosted a debate on religion versus atheism, and was not required to pay for security.

The difference was that the university’s policy on student events allowed administrators to require security for “controversial” speech or any other reason they saw fit.

In defiance of protections in the U.S. Constitution, some schools like the University at Buffalo have seen fit to impose a price for free speech.

If universities can force student groups to pay a price for free speech, what is the constitutional guarantee of free speech worth?

No major disruptions occurred at the pro-life debate, which approximately 225 people attended. The total bill to the student group, University at Buffalo Students for Life, was 30% more than the entire amount of funding that the group receives from the Student Association each year.

Alliance Defending Freedom attorneys are representing the University at Buffalo Students for Life group in a lawsuit, helping the group take a stand against the school for trying to charge the students fees for exercising free speech.

Public universities should encourage, not stifle, the free exchange of ideas. The University at Buffalo arbitrarily decided to deem an event “controversial” and then weighed down students with burdensome fees to engage in constitutionally protected free speech. Students shouldn’t have to pay these fees in the first place, but the school took matters one step further by giving administrators the power to punish speech they disagree with.

Public universities violate the Constitution when they apply vague security fee policies to student group events. Whenever the government requires you to pay a fee in order to speak, you should start asking questions. Laws requiring these fees are a prior restraint on speech and must operate according to clear, objective criteria.

This post originally appeared here.

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