The lawsuit filed by the UW club asks the court to issue an injunction invalidating the fee and seeks an unspecified amount for monetary damages and attorneys’ fees.
The University of Washington College Republicans filed a lawsuit in federal court Tuesday to try to invalidate the UW’s requirement that it pay $17,000 in security fees for a rally on campus this weekend.
The club has invited Patriot Prayer, a conservative political group from Vancouver, Wash., to speak on Red Square at 1 p.m. Saturday. A number of UW student groups have said they planned to counterprotest.
The UW says it has assessed security fees for other student-led events, and that permission to hold the rally is not contingent on the security fee being paid in advance. But in its lawsuit filed late Tuesday in U.S. District Court, the College Republican club says the fees are “draconian and unreasonable,” and an unconstitutional violation of its First Amendment rights to assemble peacefully.
The lawsuit asks the court to issue an injunction invalidating the fee, as well as an unspecified amount for monetary damages and attorneys’ fees. It asks that the security fee be based on “objective criteria that does not take into account the amount of anticipated security needed due to protesters attempting to disrupt the event, cause it to be canceled or causing violence.”
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In previous cases, courts have ruled that colleges and universities can’t impose a security fee on a college group just because it has invited a speaker who could draw counterprotests, a national expert on free speech on college campuses said.
“You can’t tax speech out of the market because it’s controversial,” said Ari Cohn, an attorney with the Foundational for Individual Rights in Education. The nonprofit, based in Philadelphia, defends freedom of speech and religion on college campuses.
In its lawsuit, the club claims the university’s policy determining security fees — adopted last year, after right-wing firebrand Milo Yiannopoulos spoke at the UW at the invitation of the College Republicans — has “the effect of chilling, marginalizing, or banning the expression of conservative viewpoints on the UW Seattle campus.”
According to the lawsuit, the UW collected security charges for nine student events between September 2016 and May 2017. The highest fee, $9,121, was for Yiannopoulos’ appearance.
The second-highest fee was for the First Nations Spring Powwow in April 2017, for $4,372. The other security fees were for amounts ranging from $760 to $3,310.
In the lawsuit, the club says members are being treated differently “because of their conservative beliefs.”
In a statement, UW spokesman Victor Balta said “the fee covers the UW police officers needed to maintain a safe environment on campus,” and does not include the cost of Seattle Police, if needed.
Balta said security fees are set on a case-by-case basis, using a number of factors, “including violence at prior events involving the group or speakers, and the time and place of the proposed event … and are necessary to ensure that the costs of hosting such events do not fall to other students and taxpayers in the state of Washington.”
Cohn said the UW’s statements suggests that part of the security costs are associated with counterprotests.
He said colleges can’t impose security fees without also disclosing how they come up with their figures. Leaving fees up to the “unbridled discretion of administrators is unconstitutional” because it allows an administrator to “just pull a number out of the air,” he said.
During the Yiannopoulos speech, violent protests broke out on Red Square and one man was shot. Yiannopoulos’ appearance cost the UW and Seattle Police Department more than $75,000 — including about $20,000 for UW police and $53,335 for the Seattle Police Department.
College protests over free speech in the last year have resulted in violence across the country, and cost schools hundreds of thousands of dollars — or more. Earlier this week, the University of California, Berkeley, revealed that it spent almost $4 million in security for a month of free-speech events last year, even though some of the events were canceled.