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Group criticizes Pennsylvania schools, including Pitt, for limiting free speech

Tribune-Review
| Wednesday, December 12, 2018 4:39 p.m
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Conservative commentator Ben Shapiro spoke about the Tree of Life Congregation shooting during his appearance at the University of Pittsburgh on Nov. 14, 2018. (Photo: Young America's Foundation)
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The University of Pittsburgh's Cathedral of Learning is a must-see attraction, according to the Cool List 2019 from National Geographic Traveller (UK).

A free speech advocacy group claimed this week that nearly a third of Pennsylvania colleges and universities have policies that “clearly and substantially” restrict free speech, with 87 percent restricting some speech.

The “ Spotlight on Speech Codes 2019 ” report comes at a time when the University of Pittsburgh is being challenged for charging an organization more than $5,500 for bringing in conservative commentator Ben Shapiro for a speaking event last month.

The Philadelphia-based Foundation for Individual Rights in Education, or FIRE, said in its report, released Tuesday, that the “vast major­ity of students at America’s top colleges and universities surrender their free speech rights the moment they step onto campus.”

The report rates 466 institutions by giving them a red, yellow or green light designation, based on whether their written policies restrict constitutionally protected speech or could have the effect of restricting such speech. Red is most restrictive, and green is least restrictive.

Almost 800,000 college students attend an institution that maintains a “free speech zone” policy, through which student demonstrations and other expressive activities are quarantined to small or out-of-the-way areas of campus, FIRE said. Free speech zones have repeatedly been struck down by the courts or voluntarily revised as part of legal settlements.

Of the 36 Pennsylvania schools listed in the report, a quarter received a red light rating and nearly half received a yellow rating. Yellow light policies allow a limited amount of protected expression or, through vague wording or arbitrary enforcement, can have a chilling effect on speech protected by the First Amendment, according to FIRE.

Pitt was among the Pennsylvania schools to receive a yellow light rating. It came under fire recently for charging a security fee of $5,546 for Shapiro’s appearance on campus Nov. 14.

Critics, including Shapiro’s sponsoring organization, say such a fee can, in effect, restrict free speech because not all groups can afford it — especially student groups.

FIRE spokesman Daniel Burnett said the group’s report is based solely on schools’ written policies, and security fees are not always imposed pursuant to written policies.

Young America’s Foundation, Shapiro’s sponsoring organization, has hired the Alliance Defending Freedom, a public interest law firm, to challenge the assessment of the fee.

Last week, the firm sent a letter to Pitt associate legal counsel Stephen Gilson asking the university to rescind the “unconstitutional” fee and to change its policy. The fee, announced two days before Shapiro’s appearance, constituted a breach of the university contract YAF signed a month earlier, the letter said.

Although YAF signed a promise to pay the fee under protest, it is not clear whether the fee was actually paid.

“University administrators charged YAF and College Republicans more than $5,500 in security fees because administrators subjectively decided that Ben Shapiro’s views are controversial and capable of causing a reaction within the student body,” the letter said.

Such a practice amounts to a “heckler’s veto” that stifles minority or unpopular viewpoints, the letter said.

Pitt Student Affairs guidelines generally require the hosting student organization to cover security costs, university spokesman Joe Miksch said. Pitt police and the school’s Dean of Students determine security needs by evaluating factors such as anticipated audience size, location of the event and access level to the event, he said.

“Consistent with the First Amendment, the content and viewpoint of the speaker’s or performer’s message and the community’s reaction or expected reaction to the event will not be considered when determining the security fee to be paid by the hosting organization,” Miksch said.

Pitt’s College Republicans, the hosting student organization, declined to comment.

Several hundred people attended the event at Alumni Hall, where Shapiro, 34, an Orthodox Jew, spoke about the proper responses to anti-Semitism — three weeks after the Oct. 27 shooting at the Tree of Life synagogue in Squirrel Hill in which a gunman killed 11 people.

Unlike other campus appearances by Shapiro, protests did not materialize at Pitt. Personnel with Landmark Event Staffing Services checked purses and backpacks prior to the start of the event, and several Pitt police cars were visible.

YAF and the University of California, Berkeley, recently reached a settlement in a similar case in which the university agreed to pay YAF $70,000 and to rescind its “high-profile speaker” policy.

The Berkeley College Republicans were charged more than $15,000 in security fees for Shapiro’s September 2017 appearance there.

Stephen Huba is a Tribune-Review staff writer. You can contact Stephen at 724-850-1280, shuba@tribweb.com or via Twitter @shuba_trib.

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