Anyone that has ever watched a mafia movie is likely familiar with a protection racket. A bunch of neighborhood thugs extort money from local businesses by “convincing” the businesses, usually through violence or threats of violence, that the thugs will protect them from being harmed by other thugs. But it is clear to everyone that the only real threat posed to the businesses is the thugs themselves.
Public universities throughout the country are increasingly employing a similar scheme to shut down unpopular (i.e., conservative) speech on campus. We’ll call it the “speech protection racket.”
Here’s how it works.
A conservative student group on campus announces that it is hosting a conservative speaker to discuss an important political topic from a conservative viewpoint. Liberal students and faculty on campus begin throwing a fit. Because…you know…they are too tolerant to allow opinions to be voiced on campus that other students might disagree with.
Having failed in its responsibility to impart the value of free speech on its campus, the university learns that these students and faculty are planning to disrupt or even prevent the event from happening through violent protests. This is when the university makes the student group an offer that it can’t refuse.
The conservative student group must pay the university to provide security for the event to prevent the violent mob of its own students and faculty from harming the people attending the event, or they can’t host the event. The kicker is that, many times, the security fee is so large that the student group could not pay the fee even if they wanted to.
UCLA is the latest university employing this racket. The Bruin Republicans, a recognized student organization at UCLA, is hosting a speech by Daily Wire Editor-in-Chief Ben Shapiro, a UCLA alumnus, on November 13, in a speech entitled “The Rise of Campus Fascism.” After approving the event, the university informed the Bruin Republicans that the group would be required to pay for security because UCLA considers Shapiro’s views to be controversial, and other students and faculty may protest during the event.
UCLA then asked the group to sign a contract in which the university would agree to cover the security costs, but only if at least 70% of the attendees at the event were UCLA students, faculty, or staff. Otherwise, the student group would be required to cover the entire cost of security. Furthermore, the officers of the group would be personally liable if the group was unable to pay.
To top it off, the university wanted the students to sign the contract before it provided an estimate as to the cost of the security. The school did provide the not-so-comforting statement that the cost would be so large that there is “no way” that the student group would be able to pay it, so it better make sure they meet the 70% requirement.
Although the policy that UCLA is applying has been in force since 2009 and, according to its terms, it is supposed to apply to every event hosted by all 1,200 student groups at UCLA, in practice the university has only applied the policy on four prior occasions. And two of those prior occasions were to Bruin Republicans’ events. So out of the tens of thousands of events that student groups at UCLA have hosted since 2009, the policy has been applied five times, and three of those times were to events of the Bruin Republicans.
Now you see why it’s called a racket.
You can also see why the U.S. Supreme Court has consistently held these types of policies to be unconstitutional. The First Amendment prohibits the government from regulating speech based on its content or the message it conveys. This principle applies to laws that attempt to censor certain viewpoints as well as laws that impose a financial burden on those viewpoints. In Forsyth County v. Nationalist Movement, the Supreme Court held that “[s]peech cannot be financially burdened, any more than it can be punished or banned, simply because it might offend a hostile mob.”
But, unlike most mafia movies, this story should have a happy ending. This week, Alliance Defending Freedom sent UCLA a letter on behalf of the Bruin Republicans, whom we represent, explaining that this policy is unconstitutional. The ADF Center for Academic Freedom has a strong record of success — about 90% — against policies like these that violate students’ First Amendment protected freedoms.
Our response on behalf of Bruin Republicans to the university’s “offer”? Fuhgeddaboudit.
Tyson Langhofer is senior counsel with Alliance Defending Freedom and its Center for Academic Freedom, which represents Bruin Republicans in its dispute with UCLA.