Students for Life, ADF Sue U at Buffalo for Content-Based Security Fees
July 2, 2013
by Susan Kruth
Christian Andzel and Matthew Ramsey, students at the State University of New York’s University at Buffalo (UB), have filed a lawsuit (PDF) against UB administrators after the student group Students for Life was charged almost $650 in security fees because its event was deemed “controversial.” Andzel and Ramsey, the presidents of UB Students for Life, filed the complaint on June 28 with the help of Alliance Defending Freedom (ADF).
According to ADF:
UB Students for Life, an officially recognized student organization at the University at Buffalo, reserved space for a debate in April on the topic of abortion. The university required the group to pay for campus security officers at the event because school officials anticipated the event would be “controversial.” At the same time and in the same building as the debate, another campus organization was hosting a debate between a Christian and an atheist; however, the university did not levy security fees for that event.
As readers might suspect from the apparent disparate treatment of Students for Life’s event and a similar debate event that same night, UB administrators exercise broad discretion in determining what events are controversial enough to require security measures. According to the complaint (PDF):
Defendants’ Security Fee Policy and associated practice provide no narrow, objective, or definite standards to limit the discretion of UB officials in deciding whether to require security at a student organization event.
Defendants’ Security Fee Policy and associated practice do not require UB officials to provide written justification for their decision to impose a security fee on student speech.
With no justification required, it should also not come as a surprise that UB administrators’ predictions about security needs aren’t always accurate; there were no substantial disruptions during Students for Life’s debate. And without uniform and objective rules, administrators are free to impose a fee on events they don’t like, effectively silencing student groups that voice an unwelcome or controversial viewpoint.
In this case, it looks like that’s exactly what happened. According to the complaint, the fee has already had an effect on Students for Life’s plans for future events. ADF notes that the cost of security for the debate alone was “about $150 more than the entire amount of funding that UB Students for Life receives from the Student Association each year.”
Administrators at public universities may not restrict a student group’s speech based on how other students might respond to it. In fact, FIRE’s past efforts have resulted in security fee policies like UB’s being rescinded at Southeastern Louisiana University, the University of Colorado at Boulder, the University of California at Berkeley, the University of California at Los Angeles, the University of Arizona, University of Massachusetts Amherst, and Temple University. And according to the complaint, UB’s event policies have something for every First Amendment advocate to dislike: a prior restraint on speech, content- and viewpoint-based discrimination, and unbridled administrative discretion to allow or disallow an event.
FIRE will watch as the case unfolds. We hope to see UB revise its event policies so that all UB students and student groups have equal opportunities to sponsor events and share their views.
Check out the complaint in full on ADF’s website.