Commentary: Equal access to public space issue of free speech

In settling with a college GOP club, the UW admits it was wrong to charge a security fee to it only.

By the Walla Walla Union-Bulletin Editorial Board

The University of Washington’s administration learned an important — albeit expensive — lesson regarding free speech.

When a public university allows its facilities to be used by one student club or organization, it must offer all clubs and organizations the same access, regardless of their political and social views. In addition, the requirements to use the facilities or grounds must be the same for every club and organizations.

Anything less is a clear abridgments of free-speech rights.

The University of Washington this week settled a lawsuit with the UW College Republicans Club over $17,000 in security fees the university planned to charge the club for holding a rally Feb. 10 with the conservative group Patriot Prayer.

The College Republicans Club argued in the lawsuit that the security fee unconstitutionally infringed upon its First Amendment freedom of speech rights.

That would certainly seem to be the case, as the fee was applied only to that group, thus making it possibly unaffordable for it to host events and creating unequal access to the university’s facilities. Charging a fee to one group but not others is de facto censorship.

Under the terms of the settlement, according to The Seattle Times, the UW will pay $122,500 in legal fees to the club’s attorneys. The UW will also rescind its policy around security for student group events and not charge any groups a security fee for speakers, unless the group specifically asks for security to be present.

The settlement, however, does not preclude the university from “creating a constitutionally permissible security fee for student events.”

Putting a fee in place to cover university costs, including security, is reasonable as long as it is applied equally.

“We have a responsibility to our campus community to ensure that safety and security are maintained during any event held on campus, and we are pleased that the settlement preserves our ability to develop a long-term solution that balances free speech and campus safety without passing the burden of sometimes significant security costs on to all students,” said university spokesman Victor Balta.

While in this case it was a conservative group having its voice silenced, it would have been equally egregious if a liberal group — or any religious group — was kept from holding a meeting by assessing fees.

This point was at the heart of a letter signed by 23 UW law school professors asking UW President Ana Mari Cauce to settle the case. In their letter, the professors said assessing substantial fees to a student group could have the effect of squelching unpopular views, which runs counter to the First Amendment.

The above editorial appeared in Wednesday’s Walla Walla Union-Bulletin.

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