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Pitt officials violate First Amendment rights of conservative student groups

University of Pittsburgh charges Intercollegiate Studies Institute, College Republicans $18K security fee for campus event after inciting violent mob of protestors
Once upon a time, people expected universities to be a marketplace of ideas.

PITTSBURGH – Alliance Defending Freedom sent a letter Monday to the University of Pittsburgh to inform it that the $18,734 security fee the university charged the Intercollegiate Studies Institute and the university’s College Republicans chapter violated the student groups’ First Amendment rights. ADF attorneys are representing ISI and the College Republicans chapter after Pitt officials incited hundreds of protestors to disrupt an event that the conservative student groups sponsored. The university then turned around and charged the two groups for the security necessary to deal with the university-incited disruption.

“Charging students more than $18,000 to host a campus event is prohibitively expensive speech—not free speech,” said ADF Senior Counsel Philip A. Sechler. “It’s bad enough that the University of Pittsburgh charged ISI and College Republicans an outrageous and unconstitutional security fee simply out of fear about how others might react to a particular viewpoint. But it’s worse that the university also encouraged students to disrupt the event and shut it down. This is exactly the type of suppression the First Amendment forbids. Implementing such security fees as part of an attempt to shut down a legitimate campus event is what’s known as a ‘heckler’s veto,’ an action which unconstitutionally allows those who oppose certain speech to censor it simply by protesting it. We urge Pitt officials to swiftly rescind this unlawful fee and amend their policies to protect every student’s freedom of speech.”

On April 18, the student groups hosted an event on the topic, “Should Transgenderism Be Regulated by Law?” The event was to include a moderated debate featuring speakers Michael Knowles and Brad Polumbo, 30 minutes of audience Q&A, and a 40-minute meet-and-greet for attendees to meet Knowles. College Republicans planned the event months in advance and followed all university policies and procedures for scheduling it. Although the university first advised ISI that it would be responsible for only around $2,000 in security costs, the university insisted just six days before the event that ISI pay an estimated $16,925 in security fees. Then, on May 19, the university assessed ISI a total of $18,734 for event security and, on June 1, demanded ISI “process this transfer very soon.”

In the letter, ADF notes that the university’s own communications prior to the event “incited many in the Pitt Community to violence and substantially contributed to the disruption that caused the event to be prematurely terminated.” For instance, on March 10, the university issued a press release calling the April 18 event “toxic and hurtful for many people in our University community.”

On March 16, Provost Ann Cudd referred to a recent speech by Knowles as “repugnant” and “hate-filled rhetoric” in a message she sent the Pitt Community. And on April 14, a professor advised her students that “[t]he Theatre Arts department, along with many other departments, students, faculty, and staff at Pitt, strongly condemns this event and has called on the University to cancel Knowles’ appearance due to his history of spreading hate speech and inciting violence against trans people.” She added, “Unfortunately, it looks as though the event is still scheduled to take place,” and invited students to participate in “several events planned for Tuesday April 18 in response to Knowles’ unwelcome presence on campus.” After these provocative communications, signs were posted throughout campus calling on students to “Shut Down Michael Knowles” by showing up at Cathedral Lawn on April 18 at 6:45 p.m.—one of the events the professor urged her students to attend.

ADF notes in its letter that, “Given the University’s incitement, it is no wonder an angry mob of hundreds assembled on campus to shut down the April 18 Event with unlawful, violent behavior.” In response to the mob, Pitt police failed to keep the street where the event took place clear of protesters, which was the original plan. Instead, they allowed rioters to occupy the street and come within striking distance of attendees peacefully entering the event space. This proximity allowed the mob to throw smoke bombs and other incendiary devices into the crowd, as well as using a road flare to burn an effigy of Knowles. That action prevented the police from keeping the O’Hara Student Center free of threats, and it ultimately caused Pitt police to urge ISI to end the event before it concluded because the situation was “deteriorating.” The Q&A period was cut short, and the 40-minute “meet and greet” with Knowles—a contractually required part of the event performance—did not occur at all.

“What happened at the University of Pittsburgh is a tragedy. College is a partnership between students and faculty rooted in mutual respect, friendship, and the pursuit of knowledge,” said ISI President Johnny Burtka. “The university violated this sacred trust by inciting a riot that threatened the lives and liberties of students peacefully assembled to discuss and debate ideas. This dereliction of duty is unacceptable in a free society, and ISI will fight to ensure it never happens again.”

In the letter, ADF explains that the university violated the constitutional rights of ISI and the university’s College Republicans by assessing an improper security fee on the event, deliberately fomenting unrest designed to shut down the event, and failing to control the riotous crowd and instead urging ISI to terminate the event before it even concluded.

The letter requests that, to avoid potential legal action, the university immediately rescind its demand that ISI pay $18,734 in security fees for the event; revise its Event Scheduling Guidelines and standard event contracts to spell out all criteria used to determine security fees, ensure that fees are not prohibitively expensive, and forbid fees based on expected listener reaction and the content and viewpoint of speech; and reimburse ISI and College Republicans for the costs of the event.

  • Pronunciation guide: Sechler (SECK’-lur)

The ADF Center for Academic Freedom is dedicated to protecting First Amendment and related freedoms for students and faculty so that everyone can freely participate in the marketplace of ideas without fear of government censorship.

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