A federal judge on Friday blocked the University of Washington from charging a college Republican group $17,000 in security fees for hosting a controversial speaker on campus.
The student group invited Joey Gibson, head of Patriot Prayer, a conservative group known for rallies in support of President Donald Trump in liberal enclaves, to speak at a campus rally on Saturday. The event is expected to draw large protests, including from the far-left antifa movement, prompting the university to anticipate high security costs.
In an order Friday, Judge Marsha Pechman forbade the university from imposing the security costs on the students, saying such a move would have the effect of “chilling speech.”
The judge’s decision is “an acknowledgment…that there is a problem on college campuses, where conservative groups are treated differently from other groups,” said Bill Becker, president of Freedom X, a nonprofit legal group that defends free expression of conservative and religious groups. The firm is representing the University of Washington College Republicans pro bono in their case against the school.
University officials reject the notion that they are discriminating against conservative groups. Friday’s order was a temporary restraining order, the parties are expected back in court in a few weeks to debate the underlying legality of attaching high fees to students’ attempts to host events.
Colleges and universities across the country have been asking student groups to chip in for security costs, part of a larger attempt to balance free speech on campus with the need to keep students safe.
The issue has arisen in part due to outspoken speakers—like conservative firebrand Milo Yiannopoulos—who seek out campus audiences and often provoke large, sometimes rowdy protests.
Mr. Yiannopoulos was hosted by the University of Washington College Republicans last year, an event that drew violent protests where one person was shot and badly injured. The university says it spent more than $20,000 for campus police activity on that occasion, supplemented by more than $50,000 in security from the Seattle Police Department.
The issue has put schools in a bind, since the extensive preparations needed to protect against potentially violent protests can come with high costs. The University of Florida last year reported spending more than $500,000 to secure the campus for a talk featuring white nationalist Richard Spencer.
That is leading schools to pass on at least some of the costs to students seeking to host the events. Last year, California Polytechnic State University ended its policy of charging students security fees after coming under fire for charging the Muslim Student Association $4,900 to host a conference on campus.
Other schools, including DePaul University in Chicago, Boise State in Idaho, and the University of Alabama have all attempted to charge student groups large fees to host controversial events, according to the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education, which tracks such incidents.
But the $17,000 fee sought by the University of Washington is one of the largest levies of its kind in recent memory, according to the FIRE, which tracks such incidents.
“This legal process is ongoing and we will continue to advocate for charging reasonable security fees to campus groups based on objective criteria,” saidVictor Balta, the university’s spokesman. He said the school anticipates spending $50,000 on the event and continues to believe it is fair that students should shoulder a portion of the cost.
In an interview, Chevy Swanson, president of the College Republicans chapter, said the judge’s order underscores the point his group was attempting to make by hosting a provocative event to begin with. Judge Pechman was appointed by President Bill Clinton.
“College administrations are always trying to cause these sorts of problems that make it harder to speak out,” Mr. Swanson said.