“Fee speech” isn’t free speech

September 21, 2016

The administration at DePaul University in Chicago has told a recently founded socialist student group that it must pay hundreds of dollars for security guards to attend and "protect" its meeting--or else have the meeting cancelled. The reason? Because of the "controversial" nature of the issues to be discussed at the DePaul Socialists meeting. DePaul students are circulating the petition reprinted below to raise their concerns about the university's attitude toward free speech.

WE, THE undersigned, demand the abolition of the provision in the DePaul Student Organization Handbook which allows for the administration to impose fees on student organizations to cover mandatory security. These fees are a de-facto form of censorship designed to discourage student organizations from bringing non-student speakers to campus. We further demand that the administration respect students' right to organize against racism and oppression as they see fit, with whom they see fit, in whatever way they see fit; only on the basis of such respect can there be a meaningful "dialogue on racism and free speech" at DePaul.

In an attempt to regain the trust of the student body after the events of last May, the DePaul administration has launched a speaker series titled "Race and Free Speech" and convened a student-faculty "Free Speech Task Force" to re-draft DePaul's policy on outside speakers.

That the title of the speaker series and task force both include the phrase "free speech" would seem to indicate an interest in defending and expanding students' right to assemble, speak, and organize free from bureaucratic obstacles and intimidation.

A public safety vehicle at DePaul University in Chicago
A public safety vehicle at DePaul University in Chicago

Yet, DePaul Socialists--a new, student-run chapter of a 30-year-old national organization with a long record of struggle against racist oppression--has been informed that not only are our room reservations subject to cancellation unless we agree to the presence of four security officers, but that we should bear the costs of this ourselves. This is the first time we have been asked to pay for our free speech in a year of organizing meetings that bring respected activists and intellectuals to contribute to dialogue on campus. In order to maintain our political independence, we are a member-funded organization, making these costs absurd and punitive.

The office of Academic Affairs explained that these costs are due to the "controversial" nature of the subject matter. Yes, politics by nature attracts controversy-- but why is this meeting, and this subject matter, singled out for excessive coverage by the campus police?

Despite being assigned to a room that will likely be too small for the number of attendees, the meeting will not be so large as to become unruly or somehow endanger university property. It will not likely attract protest, though there will certainly be discussion and debate. The speaker is a respected author of a book assigned in classrooms nationwide as an introduction to its subject matter--a book which has sold over 12,000 copies--and not some kind of provocateur. Thus it is hard to imagine a motivation for the administration's decision other than its own fear of the subject of the meeting. We ask: if this kind of arbitrary pay-to-play approach to free speech does not constitute censorship, then what does?

We are not the only ones. Other student organizations report similar forms of behind-the-scenes bureaucratic harassment, directed particularly at those organizations understood to have an "activist" character, those who give voice to perspectives underrepresented elsewhere in society (e.g. those of Palestinians), and those who highly value independence from the university's bureaucracy, giving voice to public criticism of the administration. While not as visible as the widely reported "bans" affecting certain high-profile individuals, do these arbitrary behind-the-scenes maneuvers not also constitute restrictions on free speech?

WE CHARGE that DePaul cannot both (1) market itself as an institution with a special emphasis on social justice and (2) place bureaucratic obstacles in the paths of students who take initiative in organizing against injustice, whether or not they choose to work with organizations that share the administration's particular ideology.

To be clear, according to the policies laid out in the Student Organization Handbook, OSI/Public Safety are within their formal rights to request payment for security services mandated at their discretion (pg. 17). Thus, as a step toward changing DePaul's administrative culture, we are petitioning for this policy to be abolished. Student organizations should be free to request security, but not mandated to do so, and these costs should come out of our already-inflated tuitions, not from student organizations' operating budgets. The administration cannot claim to defend students' right to speak and assemble while making arbitrary demands that we pay for these rights.

We argue that the security fee rule--which really should be called an "outside speaker fee"--effectively discourages groups that work independently of the university administration from bringing speakers to campus, denying students the right to choose from whom they learn. That the administration feels comfortable bringing celebrity activists and scholars to campus to shore up its own image--paid no doubt handsomely out of its $447 million endowment--while forcing arbitrary fees on student organizations shows that the security rule gives free speech for the administration but "fee speech" to everyone else.

Furthermore, it is crucial to understand that in the era of #BlackLivesMatter, mandatory security requirements for many students raise questions--which ought to be asked--about just whose safety the university is interested in protecting. Many students justifiably see the presence of campus security as threat to our right to assemble free from intimidation, fear, and violence, rather than a means to secure these. The solution to this problem is not "dialogue" with Public Safety. It is recognition of the right of organizations to decide whether to invite campus security into our midst, at all.

We, the undersigned, demand that the mandatory security provision be abolished, and that the administration respect students' right to organize against racism and oppression as they see fit, with whom they see fit, in whatever way they see fit. Only on the basis of such respect can there be a meaningful "dialogue" on racism and free speech at DePaul.

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