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University hits student groups with $18,000 security fee

Alliance Defending Freedom says the school stoked unrest before a conservative event

University of Pittsburgh campus

University hits student groups with $18,000 security fee

When conservative podcast host Michael Knowles and libertarian journalist Brad Polumbo showed up at the University of Pittsburgh’s O’Hara Student Center for a debate in April, the conversation in the room stayed civil, calm, and courteous. Outside the building, however, a different scene developed. Hundreds of people crowded into the street to protest the debate over regulating transgenderism in law. The protesters set off a smoke bomb and lit fire to a dummy with a picture of Knowles’ face on it, according to local news reports. University police closed buildings and urged organizers to end the event early due to the protests. Leaders cut short a Q&A period and canceled a meet-and-greet with Knowles.

On June 5, Alliance Defending Freedom sent a letter to the university on behalf of the event’s sponsoring organizations, the Intercollegiate Studies Institute and the school’s College Republicans group. ADF asserted that an $18,734 security fee charged to the sponsors violates their First Amendment rights. The ADF letter also accuses the school of deliberately stoking unrest to shut down the event and of urging the termination of the debate instead of controlling the crowd. The letter lists university professors who spoke against the event and encouraged students to protest it. “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,” the letter reads.

Similar incidents have taken place this year at other schools. In March, Judge Kyle Duncan of the 5th U.S. Circuit Cout of Appeals appeared at Stanford Law School at the invitation of the school’s Federalist Society, a conservative legal organization. Protesters angered with his conservative views interrupted him, with one screaming, “We hope your daughters get raped!” In response to the disruption, Tirien Steinbach, Stanford Law’s associate dean for diversity, equity, and inclusion, addressed the active protesters and said she was “glad that this [protest] is going on here.” Stanford President Marc Tessier-Lavigne and Law Dean Jenny Martinez later apologized to Duncan, and Martinez said Steinbach was on leave.

In April, a group at San Francisco State University protested an appearance by former NCAA Division I swimmer Riley Gaines, an outspoken critic of allowing men to compete in women’s sports. The crowd grew so loud and physically threatening that police escorted Gaines to another room. Gaines said she was assaulted during the incident. A San Francisco TV station reported that after the protest, the university president proceeded to speak out in support of the school’s LGBT members, calling Gaines’ appearance “deeply traumatic” for them.

At the University of Pittsburgh, also known as Pitt, a March petition calling for the school to cancel three events–one featuring Gaines, one with The Daily Wire editor Cabot Phillips, and the April debate–garnered nearly 12,000 signatures. The petition cited a speech Knowles, who also works for The Daily Wire, gave to the Conservative Political Action Conference. “Transgenderism must be eradicated from public life, entirely,” Knowles said in his speech. “The whole preposterous ideology. At every level.” The petition says Knowles’ language directly threatened violence against transgender individuals.

Last week’s ADF letter blames Pitt, which has more than 28,000 students, for the amount of unrest and the need for increased security. The letter details how a school-issued press release five weeks prior to the debate called it “toxic and hurtful for many people in our university community.” Provost Ann Cudd labeled a speech by Knowles as “repugnant” and “hate-filled rhetoric” in a message she sent to students and faculty.

Four days before the debate, professor Alison Mahoney advised students that “the 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.” Signs on campus encouraged students to “shut down Michael Knowles” by showing up on the school’s Cathedral of Learning Lawn the night of the event.

ADF said those messages, coupled with the school’s discretionary policy on setting security fees, constituted violations of ISI and College Republicans’ constitutional rights. The school initially estimated security needs for the debate to cost $2,000. School policy says it does not consider “expected reaction to the event” when determining security fees. Yet the ADF letter claimed that school officials told hosts that it based the fee for the April debate on previous events hosted by the conservative group Turning Point USA. ADF said even with an additional 39 officers, Pitt police failed to keep the street where the event took place clear of protesters, who reportedly shoved and pushed attendees. The university declared a safety emergency and closed buildings as the protest grew, according to a local news site. No injuries were reported.

Pitt’s faculty newsletter reported Friday that the university is reviewing the letter. Chancellor Patrick Gallagher said that limiting participants infringes on the freedom of ideas. “A university is not a place to limit or quash ideas, no matter who is espousing them,” he told University Times.

ADF asked that the university rescind its demand for the security fees. It also asked that the school spell out all criteria used to determine such fees going forward, ensure that fees are not prohibitively expensive, and forbid fees based on expected listener reaction and the content and viewpoint of speech. ADF senior counsel Philip A. Sechler said that charging fees based on protester reaction effectively lets protesters censor speech: “Charging students more than $18,000 to host a campus event is prohibitively expensive speech—not free speech.”


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