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Richard Spencer supporter sues university, calling security fee for campus speech unconstitutional

White nationalist Richard Spencer wants to speak at the University of Cincinnati this spring. (Evelyn Hockstein/For The Washington Post)
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A supporter of white nationalist Richard Spencer sued the University of Cincinnati this week, claiming the school’s president violated Spencer’s right to free speech. It was the latest lawsuit seeking to force a public university to allow Spencer’s controversial message on campus.

The school had agreed to allow Spencer to speak — something many universities declined to do in the days and weeks after Spencer led torch-bearing followers in a march at the University of Virginia that touched off a weekend of violent clashes in August. But University of Cincinnati officials required a nearly $11,000 security fee for the event, the suit claims. The room itself would cost just $500 to rent.

The lawsuit claims heightened security costs for such campus events result from left-wing extremists threatening the safety of conservative speakers, and that imposing such steep fees amounts to unconstitutional discrimination based on the expected content of the speech.

“A price tag cannot be affixed to the fundamental right of free speech,” said Kyle Bristow, attorney for Spencer supporter Cameron Padgett, who had requested the Ohio venue. “A speech tax does not comport with the United States Constitution and will not whatsoever be tolerated by my client.”

Greg Vehr, a University of Cincinnati spokesman, said, “As a state institution, and as a matter of principle, we adhere to the foundational rights embedded in the First Amendment. This includes protecting the right to free speech. We have stood by this principle all along and will continue to do so.

“However, Spencer was not invited or sponsored by any member of the university community, and like other non-sponsored speakers, he must pay a fee to rent university space. This includes a security fee. The fee assessed is a mere fraction of the costs we anticipate incurring as a result of this event, but we hold firm in our efforts to respect the principles of free speech while maintaining safety on campus.”

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At the University of Florida in October, officials spent more than $500,000 on security when Spencer spoke on campus, and the governor declared a state of emergency in advance of the white nationalist’s appearance.

A white nationalist is coming to campus. Florida prepares as though for a disaster.

Padgett continued to seek campus venues for Spencer’s speeches, requests that have put public schools in the difficult position of balancing the First Amendment with their concerns about safety and their messages addressing the importance of inclusion and diversity on campuses.

In recent months, Padgett sued Michigan State, Penn State and Ohio State universities after the schools denied requests to have Spencer speak on campus.

Last spring, a federal judge overturned Auburn University’s decision to cancel a speech by Spencer, finding no evidence Spencer promoted violence, and ruling the ban was unconstitutional.

The lawsuit against the University of Cincinnati’s president, Neville Pinto, was filed Monday in the U.S. District Court for the Southern District of Ohio.

Read a copy of the complaint here: