College puts a high price on free speech

Some higher education administrators seem to have decided to bring back the 1960s– in a completely unacceptable manner.

Veterans of civil rights and anti-war demonstrations during the ’60s may remember one tactic employed against them: parade permits. Public officials who just didn’t want the protesters on their streets refused to grant them permits for parades and demonstrations. Too much potential for trouble, the officials said.

But the courts swiftly ruled that keeping the peace was the government’s job and that no one could be denied freedom of speech just because trouble might occur.

Times change. Or do they?

On some campuses, officials have made it clear conservative groups and personalities are not welcome. But administrators knew simply refusing to allow them to gather and listen to speeches would be rejected by the courts. So they came up with another idea: Charge prohibitively high “security” fees. The University of Washington told College Republicans that if they wanted to host the conservative group Patriot Prayer for a rally, it would cost them $17,000.

Fortunately, a federal judge saw through the attempt to price free speech out of the marketplace. The college’s $17,000 fee “runs afoul” of the First Amendment, she wrote. She issued a temporary injunction that allowed the College Republicans’ event to proceed. Hopefully her final ruling will follow the pathway set forth in her decision to grant the injunction.

Unfortunately, there are grounds for concern about safety at such controversial events. When the UW College Republicans hosted right-wing provocoteur Milo Yiannopoulos in January 2017, fights broke out between his supporters and counterprotesters. UW said the event cost campus police $20,000, and Seattle police said it cost them an additional $53,000.

But isn’t that the fault of those who resorted to violence rather than those who invited the speaker?

If a speaker actively incites violence, then perhaps charges or fees are in order. The U.S. Supreme Court, in the case of Schenck v. United States, affirmed Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes’ “clear and present danger” test, by which the First Amendment would not protect, for example, someone “falsely shouting ‘fire’ in a theater.”

But in general, a speaker cannot force people to riot. They have a choice and are responsibile for their actions.

Meanwhile, society should protect those who merely want to discuss ideas and make their points — not make it too expensive for them to do so.