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Pitt waives $5,546 security fee for Ben Shapiro appearance

Stephen Huba
685449BenShapiroB
Young America's Foundation
Conservative commentator Ben Shapiro spoke about the Tree of Life Congregation shooting during his appearance at the University of Pittsburgh on Nov. 14, 2018.

The University of Pittsburgh has agreed to waive the security fee it charged the Pitt College Republicans for conservative commentator Ben Shapiro’s appearance on campus Nov. 14.

University spokesman Joe Miksch said the decision was made “in light of the confusion over this issue and the difficult position the College Republicans would be in without additional funds.”

Miksch said the confusion was over who would pay the fee — the Pitt College Republicans or Shapiro’s sponsoring organization, Young America’s Foundation. Pitt normally requires the hosting student organization to pay the fee, but the College Republicans apparently were expecting YAF to handle it, he said.

“To our knowledge, YAF never provided the College Republicans with the funds to pay the fee,” he said.

Although YAF signed a promise to pay the fee “in protest,” it retained the Alliance Defending Freedom, a public interest law firm, to challenge Pitt’s charging of the $5,546 fee just two days before Shapiro’s scheduled appearance.

The firm sent a letter dated Dec. 3 to Pitt associate legal counsel Stephen Gilson asking the university to rescind the “unconstitutional” fee and to change its policy for calculating security costs. The fee violated the First Amendment and constituted a breach of the university contract YAF signed a month earlier, the letter said.

ADF senior counsel Tyson Langhofer welcomed Pitt’s decision but said more needs to be done to ensure that conservative groups aren’t charged such a fee in the future. He said Pitt’s policy gives the university too much discretion to charge based on “the content of that student groups’s speech or whether there will be protests.”

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

Langhofer said Pitt’s policy should be based on “objective” criteria that apply evenly to all student groups.

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, access level to the event, and health and safety concerns.

“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.

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, [email protected] or via Twitter @shuba_trib.