U.S. colleges spent millions on security last year to host controversial speakers


As the political climate in America has become more heated in recent years, so has the debate over what constitutes free speech.

One consequence: More violent protests on college campuses across the country.

Speaking engagements with high-profile figures who make headlines from inflammatory comments have been expensive, as campuses shell out to create a safe environment for free speech. “There is a cost, it’s unavoidable,” said Jeff Allison, the director of government and external relations at the International Association of Campus Law Enforcement Administrators.

The University of California-Berkeley, spent roughly $4.8 million on security last year surrounding appearances from controversial speakers, like Milo Yiannopoulos and Ben Shapiro, who were invited by student groups, according to the university. The University of Florida spent $500,000 to keep its campus safe when white nationalist Richard Spencer appeared there last year, a university spokesman said in an email.

The University of California-Berkeley, spent roughly $4.8 million on security last year surrounding appearances from controversial speakers, like Milo Yiannopoulos and Ben Shapiro.

More recently, the University of North Carolina-Chapel Hill spent $390,000 between June 1, 2017 and June 30, 2018, according to university officials, to provide security in McCorkle Place, the quad which houses a statue of a Confederate soldier, known as Silent Sam. The statue was toppled by protestors last August.

Some conservatives say today’s college students are becoming too coddled to hear opposing views. “Learning is enriched by what each individual student brings to that experience if — and only if — that environment is free and open,” Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos said in September at the National Constitution Center’s Annual Constitution Day celebration. “Today, precious few campuses can be described as such.”

For Walter Kimbrough, this kind of controversy is nothing new. Kimbrough, the president of Dillard University in New Orleans, has more than a decade of history inviting speakers people might not expect to appear at his institution.

Ann Coulter visited Philander Smith College in Little Rock, Ark. when Kimbrough was president in the mid-2000s, at his request. “It was a big risk,” he said of inviting the conservative pundit to the historically black college. “We don’t agree on anything,” Kimbrough said. Nonetheless, after she spoke, “We went to dinner and we argued for two hours and we had a good time.” Indeed, Kimbrough believes that kind of spirited debate is the point of college.

Courtesy of Walter Kimbrough

Ann Coulter and Walter Kimbrough, the president of Dillard University. When Kimbrough was president of Philander Smith College, a historically black college, he invited Coulter to speak there.

Candace Owens, the communications director for Turning Point USA, a national, conservative pro-Trump organization, is scheduled to visit Dillard, another historically black college, on Monday. “You have a young African-American woman who is a really hard-core Trump supporter so just to understand that,” he said.

But in the course of inviting controversial speakers to his campuses, Kimbrough has also learned how to prepare for it. He works closely with the speaker’s booking agent and his own security team. College officials monitor any communications on social media — where protests can be organized in minutes — and elsewhere as the event gets closer. “People let you know when they don’t like it,” he said. He received about 100 personal emails in the lead-up to Coulter’s appearance.

‘Learning is enriched by what each individual student brings to that experience if — and only if — that environment is free and open.’

—Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos

So far, his approach hasn’t cost too much financially. The most contentious event at Dillard, an appearance by former Ku Klux Klan Grand Wizard David Duke as part of a political debate in 2016, had the security costs covered by the TV station hosting the debate, which had contracted with the school to use it as a venue, Kimbrough said.

That’s in part because Kimbrough hasn’t invited a “Milo-type figure” to campus, he said, referring to alt-right pundit Milo Yiannopoulos, whose appearance at University of California-Berkeley sparked major protests. “The people I’ve had have been controversial, but not where you’ve had exorbitant security costs,” he said.

Legal precedent says colleges must cover security costs

Public universities have an obligation under the Constitution to allow speakers to appear on their campus, regardless of their views, said Jeffrey J. Nolan, an attorney in Burlington, Vt., who specializes in higher education law. They can put some restrictions on the event, like the place and time, but public schools have an obligation to allow someone to appear even if it’s likely to incite disruption.

“There’s the tension between allowing free speech, but also keeping a certain level of decorum and prohibiting vandalism on your campus,” Nolan said.

‘There’s the tension between allowing free speech, but also keeping a certain level of decorum and prohibiting vandalism on your campus.’

—Jeffrey J. Nolan, an attorney in Burlington, Vt.

A Supreme Court precedent also requires colleges to absorb the cost, Nolan said. It’s possible that in the future a public college will try to challenge the standard interpretation of the ruling in that case, which said a Georgia County couldn’t charge a white supremacist group more money for a permit to demonstrate because they worried about the security cost.

For now though, “institutions are realistically assessing the current state of things and are often deciding to absorb the costs,” Nolan said. “I don’t see it changing anytime soon.” The University of Washington agreed earlier this year to pay $122,500 to settle a lawsuit brought by the school’s College Republicans club over claims that the school’s plan to charge the group $17,000 in security fees for holding a rally violated their First Amendment rights.

Colleges spend the money on things like overtime for their own officers as well as hiring police from outside departments.

‘We appreciate the opportunity to plan’

At the University of Florida, where white nationalist Richard Spencer appeared last year, the 90-person campus police force will sometimes require help from outside agencies or private security companies for major events.

Whenever possible, the college’s police department likes to get a heads up from event organizers. “We appreciate the opportunity to plan,” said Linda Stump-Kurnick, chief of the University of Florida Police Department.

In the weeks leading up to an event, officers will begin to gather intelligence to get a sense of how many people plan to attend, and whether any plan to protest. That includes monitoring conversations on social media, but also picking up information in more novel ways.

For example, sometimes a bus company driving people to an event will call and ask where to park. That allows the officers to get a sense of how many bus loads of people plan to come, said Darren Baxley, the deputy chief at the University of Florida Police Department.

Getty Images

Police monitor the scene from a nearby rooftop as demonstrators gather near the site of a planned speech by white nationalist Richard Spencer in Gainseville, Fla.

As the event gets closer, the police department tries to set clear expectations for what type of behavior is appropriate for both observers and protesters and what kind of items they can bring, Stump-Kurnick said.

Once the event begins officers monitor for any of that prohibited behavior. Officers and other security personnel will also work to create a barrier between those in support of the speaker and those against. “It’s fine to go verbal all day long, that’s great, that’s what we want,” Baxter said.

These steps helped to minimize arrests and violence during Spencer’s visit last year. Still, officers are eager to glean more knowledge about how to work these types of events. Florida officers will sometimes travel to other campuses when they host notorious speakers to get a sense of how they handle these situations.

“Every time one of these controversial events across the country happens we use it as an opportunity to learn,” Baxter said.

Today’s protests have a different tone

Allison’s organization, which serves as a membership group for campus law enforcement and public safety agencies, is developing and sharing best practices colleges can use to minimize any violence at these types of events, he said.

Those include reaching out to the speaker and their representatives in advance, when possible, establishing expectations with the group bringing the speaker, coordinating with federal, state and local law enforcement partners, and gathering intelligence from other schools about what has happened when this particular group or speaker came to their campus, he said.

Maximizing safety at protests is of course nothing new for colleges and universities, many of which are known for their activism. But this era’s protests have a different flavor, which require different security strategies, Allison said.

In the past, activism on campus was typically driven largely by students and directed towards administrators or the government. Now, campus activism is often a reaction to an invite to a boldfaced name to speak.

“The other thing we’re seeing more of is concern for the First Amendment and trying to maintain safety and security while also guaranteeing people’s First Amendment rights,” Allison said.

Strategies include the ‘heckler’s warning’

Far away from any campus rage, administrators from the University of Michigan and Brown University talked on stage at the Higher Ed Leaders Forum hosted by The New York Times this summer about the steps they take to balance a controversial speaker’s right to come to campus, with the safety of the community.

Those include steps like the “heckler’s warning” at Michigan — an escalating series of warnings to disruptive protesters that can result in them being removed from an event if not heeded — and a protocol at Brown to make sure a speaker can still safely deliver their talk to students from an off-site location if campus becomes too dangerous.

You can have the best policies and protocols in the world. I reduces the risk of disruption. It does not make anybody bulletproof.

—Christina Paxson, the president of Brown University

Andrew Martin, who at the time of the forum was the dean of the College of Literature, Science and the Arts at Michigan — he will take over as chancellor of Washington University in St. Louis in July 2019 — noted that because the school is large and has pretty robust resources available for security, these types of events haven’t caused a dramatic increase in costs.

Still, there is a price to controversy. When Charles Murray, the author of “The Bell Curve,” a book about IQ and socioeconomic status that has been derided as racist, visited Michigan last year the school spent about $19,000 on security costs associated with the event, according to a university spokeswoman.

As parents become more concerned with the safety of their children on campus, colleges are relying more on private security to monitor routine spaces, said Paul Caruso, the director of higher education at Allied Universal Security Services, a company which contracts with businesses, colleges and other organizations to provide private security. “Commencement exercises or athletic events or the arrival of new students on campus — all of these things have required heightened public-safety attention because of the potential for aggressive public speech at these events,” he said.

Schools are increasingly hiring private security firms

Companies working in campus security say the tension on college campuses has increased demand for their services. Caruso said his company has received a “volume increase” in requests from colleges in recent years.

All of this comes at a time when colleges are also under pressure to keep costs low. Often, a private security guard is cheaper than hiring extra sworn police officers, Caruso said. These guards can take steps to keep the campus safe that may not require a police officer, like monitoring public spaces, directing traffic and relaying the information the university wants to communicate to students, protesters, visitors and others.

Christina Paxson, the president of Brown University, and the other speaker at the New York Times event agreed that these types of events haven’t become too expensive at her university. At least not yet. “You can have the best policies and protocols in the world,” Paxson said. “It reduces the risk of disruption. It does not make anybody bulletproof.”

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