The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

A public university refused to pay for an antiabortion speaker. Now students are suing.

Self-proclaimed white nationalist Richard Spencer spoke at Auburn University Tuesday, April 18. His visit sparked protests that turned violent and led to three arrests. (Video: YouTube/Ryan Crumpler)
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Universities that have been visited by incendiary speakers in recent months have experienced similar scenes: mobs of protesters working to disrupt the speeches or shut them down.

Protesters caused $100,000 worth of damage before the University of California at Berkeley canceled the speech of conservative provocateur Milo Yiannopoulos. After the speech was scrubbed, President Trump threatened to pull the university’s federal funding. Protesters set campus property on fire and pepper-sprayed a Trump supporter being interviewed by a local television station.

In March, a mob at Middlebury College shoved author Charles Murray, who has been called a white nationalist, and prevented him and two school employees from getting into a vehicle. The event, The Washington Post’s Peter Holley wrote, “was edging frighteningly close to outright violence.”

Last month, hundreds protested when white nationalist Richard Spencer spoke at Auburn University, and video of two men rolling on the ground punching each other rocketed around the Internet.

And just the threat of violent protests thwarted Ann Coulter’s attempt to speak at Berkeley last month.

As a result of these campus clashes, an antiabortion group at a California university says, schools are more likely to say “no” to controversial conservative speakers — including its university.

Their solution: sue.

Students for Life at California State University at San Marcos filed a complaint in U.S. District Court, saying the college wouldn’t give them funding to bring an antiabortion speaker to campus. They claim they’re being treated unfairly by a public university that has hosted speakers on controversial topics, including a lecturer who favors abortion rights and a professional sexologist who led “a discussion of BDSM and Kink which included prizes and participation in an interactive workshop.”

The antiabortion group wanted to bring conservative columnist Mike Adams on campus to speak. Adams once referred to abortion rights activists as “animals” that “needed to be caged,” and his controversial statements about abortion and other topics led students to start a petition to get him kicked out of the University of North Carolina at Wilmington, where he is a professor of criminology.

Nathan Apodaca, the antiabortion group’s president, said other, more liberal groups had received funding for speakers from the mandatory student activity fees at CSUSM, which is near San Diego.

“Some of the speakers that were being brought in had speaking expenses that were the exact same amount that we had been asking for and they were getting funding but we were not,” Apodaca said in a video statement.

The state school is violating the antiabortion group’s constitutional rights, the federal lawsuit says, by forcing its members to “subsidize speech with which they disagree without affording them the opportunity to respond by bringing in their own speakers.”

The case is being handled largely by attorneys for the Alliance Defending Freedom, a conservative Christian nonprofit that has launched court battles — including several against universities — on behalf of antiabortion or religious groups.

Many of the dozens of campus cases that the ADF has been involved in are about obtaining equal standing for groups that champion conservative causes. The ADF has sued a college professor who erased an antiabortion group’s sidewalk chalk messages and sued Queens College for not officially recognizing an antiabortion club.

In the CSUSM case, the ADF’s argument is simple, said Casey Mattox, senior counsel for the group: Students should have equal access to the benefits of their fees, regardless of political stance.

“The Supreme Court has said that these kinds of fees can only be collected by schools if they guarantee that the money is handed out in a neutral way,” he said. “You have students who are forced to pay this money every semester that are paying to hear the other side’s perspectives, but not being able to use the money to bring speakers in who represent their views.”

The lawsuit asks the court to declare that CSUSM’s student fee policy violates the constitutional rights of students in the antiabortion group. The lawsuit also asks the court to make CSUSM pay the antiabortion group $500 and refund its student activity fees.

Margaret Chantung, a spokeswoman for CSUSM, said the university could not comment extensively because of the pending lawsuit.

But she said in a brief statement: “Cal State San Marcos is committed to fostering a campus environment where diverse ideas and views can be presented and discussed. In addition, we take student complaints and concerns very seriously.”

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Queens College has also been targeted by the ADF for not officially recognizing an antiabortion club — meaning the group couldn’t receive student activity fees or bring speakers to campus.

After the group filed a lawsuit in January, a Queens College spokeswoman told The Washington Post that “the club in question was granted status.”

“This decision is consistent with the College’s commitment to an open and inclusive environment,” the college said in February. In a statement after that change, Mattox said that Queens College did the right thing but “still needs to change its egregiously unconstitutional policies.”

The ADF scored another victory several years earlier, winning a suit against the University of Wisconsin after an appeals court said the university couldn’t withhold student fee money from certain groups that have an explicitly religious purpose.

And courts have consistently sided with that viewpoint, even though universities have argued that controversial speakers can disrupt campus life.

Eugene Volokh, a law professor at UCLA, said the political climate may make administrators wary of hosting the most controversial speakers. Those speakers almost guarantee protests, along with added security costs, headaches and the chance that campus violence will be splashed on the national news.

The ADF’s lawsuits send a message that colleges cannot err too far on the side of caution, said Volokh, whose blog, The Volokh Conspiracy, is hosted by The Post.

“There is political pressure on campus and also pressure from administrators’ natural desire to avoid hassle for themselves,” he said. “They say, ‘If we let the speakers speak, then the consequences will be all these students protesting and then there will be a riot and bad publicity.’ And I think what ADF is saying is if you don’t let this speaker speak, there’s going to be a lawsuit — and bad publicity from a lawsuit.”

A protest, Volokh said, can be “a classic heckler’s veto,” which can squelch minority opinions.

Mattox said he would just as soon see an end to student fees being used to bring in speakers, because he doesn’t think colleges can distribute the money fairly to groups that represent minority viewpoints.

“Controversial speaker rules and security fees end up being a tax on conservative ideas,” he said.

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