The Intercollegiate Studies Institute (ISI) and the College Republicans chapter at the University of Pittsburgh are claiming the school violated their First Amendment rights after being slapped with a $18,734 security fee for hosting a transgender debate.
Alliance Defending Freedom (ADF), a nonprofit legal organization representing ISI and the College Republicans, sent a letter to the university in early June asking the school to retract its $18,000-plus security fee charged to ISI and change its event-fee procedures to avoid potential legal action.
On April 18, the conservative nonprofit ISI sponsored the College Republicans’ event called “Should Transgenderism Be Regulated by Law?” While planning the event months in advance, College Republicans adhered to all university policies and procedures to schedule a moderated debate between Daily Wire commentator and conservative speaker Michael Knowles and libertarian Brad Polumbo, a 30-minute Q&A, and a 40-minute meet-and-greet with Knowles.
But ahead of the function, the university upped the debate’s security fees.
The university originally told ISI it would need to pay approximately $2,000 for event security costs. But six days before the debate, the university asked ISI for an estimated $16,925. That cost increased to $18,734 after an assessment on May 19, which was followed by a demand that ISI “process this transfer very soon” on June 1.
According to other student groups, the university does not require security costs for all expressive events. The cost is determined on a case-by-case basis by school administrators, who ADF says should not have this discretion, and often depends on the number of protestors expected.
That number—and subsequent cost—likely increased due to the university’s own incitement, ADF contends.
In a March 10 press release, the university called such events “toxic and hurtful for many people in our University community.” On the other hand, the press release stated that students could peacefully protest but not impede the event.
Yet, faculty weighed in with their own opinions and encouraged students to protest. Provost Ann Cudd said a recent speech by Knowles was “repugnant” and “hate-filled rhetoric.” In addition, a professor told her students that “[t]he Theatre Arts department, along with many other departments, students, faculty and staff at Pitt, strongly condemns this event and has called on the University to cancel Knowles’ appearance due to his history of spreading hate speech and inciting violence against trans people.”
Signs around campus also called for students to “Shut Down Michael Knowles,” who wants to “eradicate transgenderism from public life.”
According to the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, more than 11,000 people signed a petition for the university to cancel Knowles’ trip to campus. When that didn’t occur, around 200 people showed up for a six-hour protest the day of the debate. These protestors stood outside the event space, chanting loudly while attendees peacefully entered. One rioter burned an image of Knowles, and an incendiary device was thrown toward officers minutes before the debate began. Because Pitt police were unable to control rioters who created a “deteriorating” situation, the Q&A was interrupted and the meet-and-greet was completely canceled.
In a letter to the university, ADF outlined three complaints: an exorbitant event security fee, an attempt to stir up unrest to hinder the debate, and failure to control the protest, which resulted in ending the event early.
“Given the University’s incitement, it is no wonder an angry mob of hundreds assembled on campus to shut down the April 18 Event with unlawful, violent behavior,” ADF stated in the letter.
“It’s bad enough that the University of Pittsburgh charged ISI and College Republicans an outrageous and unconstitutional security fee simply out of fear about how others might react to a particular viewpoint,” ADF Senior Counsel Philip Sechler said. “But it’s worse that the university also encouraged students to disrupt the event and shut it down. This is exactly the type of suppression the First Amendment forbids.”
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