Phi Beta Cons

The Right take on higher education.

Pro-Life Speech and the Heckler’s Veto


I live and work in the heart of Tennessee (with no income tax, country music, and approximately 7.3 pickups per working adult, it’s the best place for a conservative to live), and it’s always been a point of some parochial pride that not once have we had to litigate against a Tennessee university to protect student rights.  This record remains intact — barely.

Last semester, Middle Tennessee State University informed the Pro-Life Collegians (PLC) that they could not host a traveling pro-life display without first paying a substantial security fee. Over at the Alliance Defense Fund’s Academic Freedom File, Joe Martins tells the story:

While PLC was reserving space for the display, an MTSU official told PLC’s president that, “[g]iven the history with events such as this,” the group could hold the event only if it paid for security during the event. But PLC had previously sponsored similar pro-life displays at MTSU without incident. So this comment raised the very concern expressed by the Supreme Court when it reviewed security fees almost twenty years ago:  Government officials could require—or set the amount of—security fees based on whether or not they like the applicant’s message. So the Court held that government officials cannot require Americans to pay a security fee in order to speak because that would essentially amount to a tax on the content of speech.

Fortunately, MTSU did the right thing (they are Tennesseans) after ADF wrote a letter reminding them of their constitutional obligations.

All of this may seem rather humdrum compared to the more spectacular free-speech violations on campus, but the problem is common enough (see FIRE’s case archive for several recent examples) that vigilance is required. But really, we need more than vigilance. Awareness is necessary. It just seems so reasonable to say, “Sure, we’ll allow you to have your event, just pay for security.” Yet a moment’s thought reveals that such a statement actually incentivizes disruption. If you can drive the security fee high enough, then you can censor the speaker — hence the term “heckler’s veto.”

Well done, Pro-Life Collegians.


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