The University of Washington settled a lawsuit claiming school officials violated the First Amendment rights of conservative students by charging them a hefty security fee to bring a far-right group to campus.
As part of the settlement, UW agreed to modify its policy on non-academic events, explicitly prohibiting the school from sticking student groups with security fees. The settlement does not preclude UW from creating a process for security fees in the future.
Both sides of the lawsuit said they are pleased with the terms of the settlement. "We have a responsibility to our campus community to ensure that safety and security are maintained during any event held on campus, and we are pleased that the settlement preserves our ability to develop a long-term solution that balances free speech and campus safety without passing the burden of sometimes significant security costs on to all students," said UW spokesperson Victor Balta.
A lawyer for the UW College Republicans said the settlement is a victory for the student group, which received a $17,000 security bill from the university after it announced it would hold a rally with Patriot Prayer, the Pacific Northwest band of brawlers whose violent clashes with Antifa protestors have made headlines.
Members of the Proud Boys, a Southern Poverty Law Center-designated hate group associated with Patriot Prayer, also attended the rally.
UW also agreed to pay $122,500 in attorneys' fees to two firms who represented the College Republicans in this case.
Police arrested five counter-protestors and used pepper spray during the February Patriot Prayer demonstration.
Prior to the rally, the College Republicans sued UW, claiming the security fee amounted to discrimination against conservative viewpoints.
UW argued that it assessed the $17,000 fee, equivalent to four hours of overtime for 24 police officers, based on past violence at Patriot Prayer rallies. In arguing its case, the university submitted a declaration from a UW Police Department employee who researched the far-right group prior to the event.
"Gibson, Patriot Prayer, and their supporters have a history of intentionally inciting and escalating violence with counter-protestors, who often attend at their rallies," wrote UWPD technical services director Susan Carr.
A federal judge granted the student group a temporary restraining order just days before the event, blocking the university from charging the fee.
In April, 22 UW law professors signed a letter to UW President Ana Mari Cauce recommending that she end the policy of charging security fees to student groups.
"If exceptional circumstances were to arise in which an event posed a serious threat to the rights or well-being of any members of the university community, the University should address that problem directly, but not by imposing a large security fee in the hope or expectation that such a fee will pressure a student organization to cancel an event, or to avoid inviting controversial speakers in the future,” the letter stated.
The College Republicans were represented by Freedom X, a California-based conservative law firm whose website lists campaigns against “intellectual McCarthyism” and “Islamic indoctrination.”
Monday’s settlement caps off a years-long struggle by UW officials to balance speech rights with student safety.
In 2017, the College Republicans invited the alt-right provocateur Milo Yiannopoulos to campus, incurring a $9,000 security fee. One person was shot during protests outside Yiannopoulos’ talk. The City of Seattle and UW ended up paying more than $75,000 in police overtime for the speaking event, the Seattle Times reported.
Nationwide, security fees for controversial speakers have become a talking point for right-wing groups who say conservative students face growing intolerance on liberal campuses.