University at Buffalo charged pro-life student group $650 in 'unconstitutional fees,' lawsuit alleges

How much does free speech cost?

The University at Buffalo charged a pro-life student group nearly $650 in “unconstitutional fees” to exercise its freedom of speech during an event in April, a lawsuit alleges.

UB Students for Life, an official student organization at the school since 2012, held a pro-life abortion debate on April 18 and were instructed by school officials to hire university police to attend the event since it involved “controversial” expression.  School officials later charged the group $649.63, or $150 more than the group’s entire annual Student Association funding even though one of the officers sat outside and read the newspaper.

“A public university is commonly known as the ‘marketplace of ideas,’” according to the 33-page lawsuit, which was filed Friday in the U.S. District Court for the Western District of New York. “That marketplace depends on free and vigorous debate between students — debate that is silenced when university policies regulate speech based on content and viewpoint and vest administrators with unbridled discretion to impose fees for the exercise of speech.”


More On This...

More than 200 people attended the debate and no major disruptions were reported. At the same time, however, two other student groups — the InterVarsity Christian Fellowship and UB Freethinkers — hosted a debate between a Christian and an atheist and were not levied security fees by university officials.

David Hacker, senior legal counsel for Alliance Defending Freedom, which is representing the group and two of its members, said public universities should encourage — rather than stifle — the free exchange of ideas.

“University officials cannot arbitrarily decide to deem an event ‘controversial’ and then weigh down students with burdensome fees to engage in constitutionally protected free speech,” Hacker said in a statement.

Hacker claims that the university’s security fee policy and practice violates the First Amendment because it grants school officials “unbridled discretion” to discriminate again speech based on content or viewpoint.

“These grants of unbridled discretion to UB officials violate the First Amendment because they create a system in which speech is reviewed without any standards, thus giving students no way to prove that a denial, restriction, or relocation of their speech was based on unconstitutional considerations,” the lawsuit continues. “Because Defendants have failed to establish narrow, objective, and definite standards governing the imposition of security fees on student organization events, there is a substantial risk that UB officials will engage in content and viewpoint discrimination when addressing those applications.”

University at Buffalo officials declined to comment on the pending litigation when reached Tuesday but referred to its “Freedom of Expression” website, which was published on April 16 — two days prior to the pro-life event.

“The University at Buffalo strives to create an environment in which diverse opinions can be expressed and heard,” the website reads. “As a public university, it is a fundamental value of UB that all members of the campus community and their invited guests have a right to peacefully express their views and opinions, regardless of whether others may disagree with those expressions. This includes the right of protesters to oppose the views or opinions of others, but not in such a way as to limit or prevent the speaker's freedom of expression or interfere with university operations.”