Advancing Religious Liberty
3/16/11 at 11:01 AM 0 Comments

Sure, You Can Speak... Just Pay Us Hundreds of Dollars for the Privilege

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Author: ADF Senior Legal Counsel Jeff Shafer

Indirect methods of censorship are often government officials’ most effective means of speech control.  Because such restraints on speech are not formally directed to interfering with the speaker’s message (only having the effect of doing so), it allows for both better public relations (“we aren’t intending to censor you”) and the resulting likelihood of diminished resistance from the affected speaker.

At the University of Michigan, the student group Students for Life hosted a public lecture by Dr. Alveda King (niece of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.) in which she spoke in defense of preborn human life and against the scourge of abortion.  Because certain students were less than enthusiastic about Dr. King’s points of view, they announced in advance that they would appear at the event bearing messages of protest on their shirts.  The university Department of Public Safety determined that this presented grave safety concerns, and—notwithstanding the contrary wishes of Students for Life—assigned five or six police officers to the event, and billed the group over eight hundred dollars for their presence.

Now.  Conservative student groups on state university campuses are not known for being flush with cash.  For such groups to be billed hundreds of dollars to speak because their messages are not happily embraced by all hearers ensures they will have no (or significantly fewer) public presentations on campus, thereby depriving the community of their input, and the speakers themselves of effective means to address their peers. 

Students for Life contacted ADF.  We then wrote to University of Michigan officials, explaining  that the Supreme Court has made clear that the government may not charge speakers for the security costs driven by listeners’ hostile response to that speech.  “Speech cannot be financially burdened, anymore than it can be punished or banned, simply because it might offend a hostile mob,” the Supreme Court has ruled.  Because the university’s security cost imposition depends on its “measure of the amount of hostility likely to be created by the speech based on its content,” the result is that “[t]hose wishing to express views unpopular with bottle throwers” are stuck with higher costs for speaking.  This is forbidden.

Furthermore, such a policy as UM applied to Students for Life contains no restraints on university officials arbitrarily imposing fee burdens in a way that encourages some views and discourages others.  That form of policy, enabling the disguise of viewpoint censorship, is emphatically disallowed under well-settled First Amendment case law.

The University of Michigan has responded favorably to ADF’s intervention, and agreed to cancel Student for Life’s outstanding invoice.  We commend the officials involved for this remedial turn, and trust that the policies at that institution will in the future conform to constitutional standards.

This post originally appeared here.

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