UCI’s Punishment of College Republicans Appears to Be Unconstitutional

UC Irvine has prohibited its College Republicans chapter from accessing event space after the CRs notified the administration they may host controversial speaker Milo Yiannopoulos again this fall, according to Breitbart.

It appears that UCI administrators invited College Republicans leaders to a meeting to discuss the planning of the Yiannopoulos event, which took place earlier this month. During the meeting, the College Republicans mentioned that they wanted to bring him back in the fall. Four hours later, the administration sent them an e-mail informing them that they could no longer reserve Student Center & Event Services venues until next spring for failing to provide a certificate of insurance for the private event security.

Wait, what? Suspended over a certificate of insurance? That sounds bizarre. I assume they’re referencing a fairly new California law requiring private security companies to carry a $1 million general liability insurance policy. UCI claims it requested the documentation three times before the event, and the College Republicans claim UCI only requested it the night before the event.

But, so what? Even if UCI is correct, is it really appropriate to effectively prohibit a student organization from hosting events for one year over a paperwork snafu? Bear in mind that these are college studentsif paperwork errors merited one-year suspensions, there probably wouldn’t be any student organizations left to suspend. Student organizations offer students the opportunity to learn important managerial and leadership skills, often through failure. This punishment serves no pedagogical purposeit is draconian; it is punitive; and it reeks of an ulterior motive.

There is ample evidence that this is a calculated move on the part of UCI to prevent the College Republicans from hosting Yiannopoulos again this fall. A UCI vice-provost previously sent a campus-wide e-mail condemning posters promoting the event, recommending that its organizers attend “Safe Zone training” at UCI. The administration also tried to charge the College Republicans a $1,000 fee for hosting the event with an outside student organization, but was forced to withdraw this demand. Moreover, UCI didn’t impose this proof-of-insurance requirement when David Horowitz required security, or even bring it up when UCI met with the CRs and their lawyers prior to the eventso, why now all of a sudden?

UCI is a government university, so it must adhere to the requirements of the First Amendment. If UCI is suspending the College Republicans on the basis of the viewpoints they and their speakers espouse, then it is engaging in unconstitutional viewpoint discrimination. It is simply illegal for a government body to silence a speaker because it disagrees with its viewpoint.

This is a fact-specific inquiry and too early to reach any definitive conclusions, but UCI’s actions appear unconstitutional at first glance. A few relevant questions come to mind:

(1) Do UCI’s published rules governing its student organizations require them to present proof of insurance? If so, is this an affirmative obligation or must UCI request it? If the latter, then is there any evidence that UCI requested?

(2) How many other student organizations have provided private security at its events, and how many of them presented proof of insurance? How many were punished for not presenting it? What was their punishment?

(3) Why didn’t UCI request this proof directly from the security company? It was only a fax or e-mail away.

(4) The CRs requested $1,250 for event security, but received a paltry $181. How much does UCI grant to other student organizations requesting security?

The answers to these questions could be very revealing.

At first glance, however, this appears to be symptomatic of a regrettable anti-speech trend afflicting college campuses across the country. A fictional right to not be offended all-too-often trumps our constitutional right to free speech. Angry mobs delude themselves into believing that using force and intimidation to silence opposing viewpoints is somehow free speech. And, as we see here, university administrators favor the rights of the offended and of the angered over those who are peacefully expressing a legally protected opinion.

Kudos, however, to UCI’s Anteaters for Bernie Sanders for reaching across party lines to release a statement supporting the CRs’ right to free speech and equal treatment. They seem to recognize that partisan squabbles are secondary principles, whereas free speech is a primary principle that should unite all of us. Hopefully this attitude gains traction among UCI’s student organizations; time will tell.

Ryan T. Darby practices defamation defense and free speech law in San Diego, as well as a proud California College Republicans alumnus and Lifetime Achievement Award recipient.

The author originally published this post on SD Rostra.

Categories: Constitutional Law, Free Speech, and Public Interest Law.