Attorneys from the Alliance Defending Freedom, representing a pro-life student group, filed a federal lawsuit Friday against the University at Buffalo, the State University of New York, for charging the group fees in order to exercise its freedom of speech.
University officials charged the group nearly $650 for security officers because
it deemed an abortion debate that the group sponsored “controversial.” The
university has no guidelines for such a designation and leaves it to the whim
of officials, a practice that the U.S. Supreme Court has found to be
unconstitutional in other cases, attorneys claim. The university did not assess
such fees to a group holding a similar event on campus in the same building at
the same time.
“Public universities should encourage, not stifle, the free exchange of ideas,”
said Senior Legal Counsel David Hacker. “University officials cannot
arbitrarily decide to deem an event ‘controversial’ and then weigh down
students with burdensome fees to engage in constitutionally protected free
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.
No major disruptions occurred at the abortion debate, which approximately 225
people attended. The total bill to UB Students for Life was $649.63, about
$150 more than the entire amount of funding that UB Students for Life receives
from the Student Association each year. The fees will cause UB Students for Life
to cancel some of the expressive activities it had planned for this year.
Alliance Defending Freedom attorneys argue in the lawsuit that the university’s
security fee policy and practice violates the First Amendment “because they
grant UB officials unbridled discretion to discriminate against speech based on
its content or viewpoint” and “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.” As the complaint explains,
they “create a system in which speech is reviewed without any standards, thus
giving students no way to prove that a denial, restriction, or relocation of
their speech was based on unconstitutional considerations.”