Victory for Free Speech at UCLA

March 29, 2007

LOS ANGELES, March 29, 2007—The University of California–Los Angeles (UCLA) has reversed a decision that forced a student organization to cancel an immigration debate in response to threatened protests. UCLA had planned to charge the student group sponsoring the debate up to $15,000 in security costs after other students threatened to protest the debate. Unable to pay this prohibitively large sum of money, the group was forced to cancel the debate, and contacted the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education (FIRE) for help.
“A public university cannot penalize students financially for hosting a controversial event,” FIRE President Greg Lukianoff said. “UCLA’s change of heart was crucial; after all, if a debate at a university can effectively be shut down by threats from those who want to prevent vital issues from even being discussed, where in America is it safe to debate the pressing issues of the day?”
UCLA’s Objectivist group—Liberty, Objectivity, Greed, Individualism, Capitalism (L.O.G.I.C.)—had planned to host a debate on February 6, 2007, between illegal immigration opponent Carl Braun, who is the Executive Director of the Minuteman Civil Defense Corps of California, and open immigration advocate Yaron Brook, President of the Ayn Rand Institute.
On February 4, UCLA’s Students for a Democratic Society posted an online announcement calling on students to join them in protesting the debate. L.O.G.I.C. leader Arthur Lechtholz-Zey reports that one protestor posted an online comment, later removed, that said, “let’s do what they did at Columbia and shut it down,” referring to the students whose disruption of a speech at Columbia University by Minuteman Project founder Jim Gilchrist in October 2006 turned violent.
UCLA administrators informed Lechtholz-Zey on February 5 that L.O.G.I.C. would have to pay $12,000 to $15,000 for an astounding 46 extra security guards inside and outside the event to ensure that protest of the debate did not grow violent. Unable to secure the necessary funds, L.O.G.I.C. was forced to cancel the debate.
L.O.G.I.C. contacted FIRE, which wrote a letter to UCLA Acting Chancellor Norman Abrams on February 19, reminding him that the First Amendment requires a public university to ensure that fees for campus events are assessed on a content-neutral basis. FIRE pointed out that the U.S. Supreme Court had addressed this very situation in Forsyth County v. Nationalist Movement (1992), in which it declared that “[l]isteners’ reaction to speech is not a content-neutral basis for regulation.…Speech cannot be financially burdened, any more than it can be punished or banned, simply because it might offend a hostile mob.”
Abrams responded to FIRE on February 26, writing that UCLA “understands its obligation to bear the reasonable security costs relating to demonstrations that might result in response to controversial speech. It was not appropriate for campus representatives to suggest that the student group would be obligated to pay for additional security needs because of a protest that was anticipated.” Abrams further wrote that “[t]he students will not, in fact, be charged for additional security associated with anticipated demonstrators when the event is rescheduled and occurs.”
L.O.G.I.C. has rescheduled the debate for May 1. Abrams also told FIRE in a second letter that while L.O.G.I.C. will not have to pay for UCLA Police to patrol the debate, the group will have to pay for a private event staffing firm to provide services such as “ushering, monitoring doors and checking wristbands” at the debate.
“Thankfully, UCLA has recognized that it cannot allow the most disruptive members of the community to shut down speech with which they disagree simply by threatening violent protest,” FIRE Vice President Robert Shibley said. “FIRE is now calling on UCLA to develop a clear, permanent policy so that this will never happen again.”
FIRE is a nonprofit educational foundation that unites civil rights and civil liberties leaders, scholars, journalists, and public intellectuals from across the political and ideological spectrum on behalf of individual rights, due process, freedom of expression, academic freedom, and rights of conscience at our nation’s colleges and universities. FIRE’s efforts to preserve liberty on campuses across America can be viewed at www.thefire-dev.wp.eresources.ws.
 
CONTACT:
Robert Shibley, Vice President, FIRE: 215-717-3473; robert@www.thefire-dev.wp.eresources.ws
Norman Abrams, Acting Chancellor, UCLA: 310-825-2151; chancellor@conet.ucla.edu
Jack Raab, Events Office Director, UCLA: 310-825-8980; jraab@events.ucla.edu

Schools: University of California, Los Angeles Cases: University of California at Los Angeles: Controversial Student Event Cancelled