A federal judge has temporarily blocked the University of Washington from charging the UW College Republicans group a $17,000 security fee for a rally on campus this weekend.
The College Republicans have invited the head of the conservative group Patriot Prayer to speak in Red Square at 1 p.m. on Saturday. Several groups have said they plan to protest the event.
The student group sued the university earlier this week, saying the security fee amounts to a tax on free speech and violates their constitutional rights. The university has said it would not levy the fee beforehand and would allow the rally, whether or not the fee was eventually paid.
Attorney Bill Becker is representing the College Republicans. He said the judge agreed with their arguments on Friday morning.
"That large of a fee, without some rational, objective factors playing into it to guide university officials, had the effect of chilling the free speech on campus," Becker said.
The case will continued to be argued in court after Saturday’s event. The College Republicans are seeking to permanently stop the University from enforcing its current security fee policy.
Becker said the university should not be allowed to pass on high security costs to the student group because their views are disliked.
“We’re dealing with the most critical right that we have in a free society, the right to be able to express unpopular viewpoints without being threatened.”
UW officials have said that security fees are based on objective criteria, not on ideology or political views.
University of Washington spokesman Victor Balta said in a statement that the school will comply with the judge’s order.
He also noted that security fees have been charged to many different groups in the past and have “ranged from hundreds to several thousands of dollars. Our policy does not currently require the fee to be paid in advance of holding an event, as student groups have the option of paying afterward. We anticipate more than $50,000 will be spent toward security Saturday, and the $17,000 fee represents a portion of what is necessary for police to safely accommodate guest speakers, the host group and other attendees.”
Balta said the university would continue to advocate for charging reasonable security fees based on things like “analysis of violence and threats to public safety by the invited speaker, attendees at previous events or the sponsoring group – both in and out of the state of Washington – as well as the date, time and location of the proposed event.”
Balta said the UW backs public debate, but someone has to pay the bills.
“Civil, rigorous and passionate debate on myriad issues are the hallmark of a major public university, and the UW works hard to maintain an environment where ideas can be shared and challenged," he said. "However, recent events both here at the UW and around the country have demonstrated the need for significant police presence on Saturday, and that level of security comes at a cost. We maintain that this cost should not be covered by other students’ tuition dollars.”
Becker said the outcome of this case will address a tension present on many campuses across the U.S.
“This is a collision between the rights of campus administrators at public universities to be able to protect the environment from the type of harm caused by radical protesters with the rights of people exercising and enjoying their First Amendment freedom of expression and association,” he said.
The university says it will provide security at Saturday’s rally as planned. Both the UW Police Department and the Seattle Police Department will be involved.
In a letter sent Friday to students and staff, UW President Ana Maria Cauce urged people to stay away from Red Square during the rally.
She said university police believed outsiders planned to instigate violence, and other groups had canceled or postponed events on campus.
Further, she said, access to Red Square would be limited.
“Your safety is important to us and we are taking precautions to ensure the Patriot Prayer event unfolds as peacefully as possible," Cauce said. "However, I encourage you to avoid Red Square, and the surrounding area from 8 a.m. to 5 p.m. on Saturday to ensure your own personal safety.”
The UW anticipates Saturday’s rally could draw as many as 1,000 people.
Chevy Swanson, president of the UW College Republicans, said his group and Patriot Prayer are planning for a peaceful event. He said they’re asking people to come with good intentions and not to come armed.
“We want people to leave [the rally] and say, ‘hey, maybe I don’t agree with those guys, but the fact that we let them speak that wasn’t that bad, that wasn’t bad at all, in fact,’” Swanson said.
He said the group may even turn the mic over to counter-protesters. Swanson said the whole event is about free speech.
He said they’ve been working with university police to make sure the event goes smoothly.
In January 2017 a man was shot and badly injured when protests turned violent in Red Square. That incident took place outside an event hosted by the College Republicans that featured Milo Yiannopoulos, a right-wing provocateur. It was the same day as the inauguration of President Donald Trump.