FIRE reports on a situation at Michigan State that has now been resolved. The MSU chapter of Young Americans for Freedom scheduled a showing of Obsession: Radical Islam’s War Against the West, a documentary that has provoked problems at other colleges around the country when it was shown, and they requested that there be an MSU police presence in order to protect the viewing and handle any problems that might occur. Here’s what happened:
Michigan State responded to the request for police presence at “Obsession” by deferring to a campus policy stating that student groups hosting events must pay the overtime wages of any University Police officers assigned to those events. Michigan State Inspector Kelly Beck further told YAF President Kyle Bristow in an e-mail that if YAF refused to pay for Campus Police to attend the event, and if a protest broke out that required police intervention, that this would lead “to pulling additional police personnel from their patrol duties and thus creating a shortage of manpower to respond to emergencies in the community.” In the past when such events transpired, Beck wrote, “[t]hose groups were subsequently charged for the additional manpower necessary to bring their special event under control.” Because YAF’s budget was small, the group faced the possibility that a safe, secure, heckler-free screening of “Obsession” might not occur.
FIRE sent a letter to MSU President Lou Anna Simon informing her that such a policy was unconstitutional under a case called Forsyth County v Nationalist Movement. In that case, a local ordinance in Georgia did the same thing, allowed the county government to charge organizations for the cost of police protection if an incident occurred at their entirely legal event that required additional police protection. In that case, the event was a protest against the Martin Luther King holiday.
The case provides an interesting glimpse into how the content of the speech can color our view of the outcome of such cases. In the Forsyth County case, the ordinance was passed by the county in response to a situation where a pro-civil rights rally in January 1987 was attacked by counter-demonstrators from the Nationalist Movement, a KKK-affiliated group. That led to a huge clash that resulted in nearly $700,000 in police resources to be spent, a small portion of which had to be paid by the county.
But in that situation, it was the civil rights group that had the permit for the demonstration and thus the ones who, under the ordinance, would be forced to pay the cost of the police presence. It was the civil rights group that applied for the permit and another group that showed up for the counter-demonstration and caused the problems, yet the civil rights group is the one that would get charged. Nonetheless, it was the counter-demontrators who filed the suit because, after the ordinance was passed, they wanted to hold a rally of their own and faced the prospect of being charged for police protection for their legal rally if it turned into a big mess. Likewise, in the MSU case, if another group decided to counter-protest and disrupted things to the point where police protection was needed, it was the YAF chapter that would have to pay the cost.
Interestingly, though the case was filed not by the civil rights group but by a far right extremist group, the case lined up pretty much along liberal/conservative lines: Blackmun, Stevens, O’Connor, Kennedy and Souter in the majority and Rehnquist, Scalia, White and Thomas in dissent. Also, it should be noted, the ACLU was on the side of the plaintiffs despite the fact that the content of their speech is about as contrary to the ACLU’s beliefs and goals as it is possible to be. This is in the highest traditions of first amendment law, applying its protections even when the message being conveyed is repulsive to us.
Anyway, back to the MSU case. The university relented and decided to assign police officers to the event at no charge. But I agree with FIRE that the university now needs to amend its rules and take that requirement out so it does not act as a potential chill on similar events in the future.