The University of Washington will have to foot the bill for a far-right rally scheduled to take place on their campus this weekend after a federal judge ruled Friday that the university had acted unlawfully by charging a conservative on-campus group $17,000 to cover security costs.
“The guidelines of how the bill was calculated runs afoul (by) chilling speech,” explained U.S. District Court Judge Marsha Pechman, who issued a temporary restraining order against the university in a lawsuit filed by the campus's College Republicans group.
The legal showdown between the University of Washington and the College Republicans is yet another example of the impossible landscape public universities are trying to navigate, as white nationalists and alt-right groups seek public appearances on their campuses.
The University of Washington, in particular, has plenty of reason to be on edge, not only in light of the violent events in Charlottesville last summer, which kicked off with a torch-lit white supremacist march at University of Virginia, but also because of what happened the last time it allowed a controversial speaker on campus.
On Jan. 20, 2017, a speaking appearance by “alt-lite” troll Milo Yiannopoulos — also at the invitation of the UW College Republicans — resulted in violent protests in the campus’ Red Square, where one person was shot and wounded. The university, in conjunction with the Seattle Police Department, had to dispatch 124 police officers to the scene, ultimately logging almost 1,000 hours of overtime to the tune of about $75,000.
This Saturday, the school's College Republicans group plans to host another conservative, anti-government group called Patriot Prayer. Patriot Prayer, which operates mainly in the Pacific Northwest — most visibly in Vancouver, Oregon and Washington — is primarily known for organizing protests and rallies at liberal-leaning campuses in the hopes of sparking a challenge from far-left activists. The group’s founder, Joey Gibson, has publicly denounced white supremacists and neo-Nazis — but that hasn’t stopped them from showing up at his events.
The UW College Republicans group says its pleased with the outcome.
“We have to remember that Free Speech [sic] is for everyone, on all sides of the aisle, so when protesters attempt to dictate the rules by being dangerous and when authority figures give them the pass to do so, we must be willing to stand up and say that is wrong,” UW College Republican president Chevy Swanson told VICE News in an email. “We are hopeful that we will see many more victories along the way, ultimately winning the case and ensuring campus event policies are in line with our God given right to free expression.”
Earlier on Friday, UW president Ana Marie Cauce released a statement urging students to stay away from Saturday’s rally.
“This week, UWPD obtained credible information that groups from outside the UW community are planning to join the event with the intent to instigate violence,” Cauce wrote, adding that access to Red Square would be limited.
But for universities that want to keep controversial speakers off campus for fear of violence, there aren't many options beyond costly court battles with on-campus groups. And the Trump administration has indicated it has no interest in supporting the schools. Just last month, the Department of Justice filed a statement of interest siding with the College Republicans group at the University of California, Berkeley, after the students filed suit accusing the school of failing to protect their free speech rights by cancelling events in early 2017 — including planned speeches by Yiannopoulos, Ann Coulter and David Horowitz — over security concerns.