by James A. Bacon
Let me post a hypothetical situation: If an event is held on a college campus and the university police department mobilizes 20 to 30 officers and auxiliary personnel to maintain order and keep everyone safe, who should pay the bill: (1) the group that organized the event and conducted itself in an orderly, respectful fashion, (2) the group whose participants cursed, condemned and intimidated attendees, or (3) the university itself?
Actually, the situation isn’t hypothetical. It happened Oct. 11, 2023, when the Young Americans for Freedom in partnership with the Jefferson Council invited author Abigail Shrier to speak at the University of Virginia, only to have protesters organized by the Queer Student Union harass attendees as they entered the venue at Minor Hall and later as they left. We have written about the protesters’ belligerent behavior before. (Read our report for a refresher course.) This post focuses on who pays the bills to maintain security at such events.
In this particular instance, the University billed the Jefferson Council $7,847 for the cost of providing security.
What kind of logic charges the victims of disruptive behavior for maintaining order and security? It’s a logic that draws irrelevant distinctions such as whether the event is held indoors or outdoors, is in a public venue or a private venue, or is a “demonstration” versus a ticketed event.
In effect, University policy punishes groups that engage in the civil dialogue that the administration purports to support and gives a pass to groups that treat others with rudeness and disrespect.
The Jefferson Council reimbursed the University for event security for nearly two years without giving it much thought. We notified the University Police Department and the Office of Student Affairs of upcoming speakers we were sponsoring in conjunction with student clubs, worked with them to assess the risk of disruption, and acceded to their judgment about how many university employees and/or contracted security personnel would be required. We found these university officials to be professional and genuinely committed to protecting peoples’ freedom of speech — and freedom to listen.
We assumed the existence of a level playing field in which everyone was treated the same. It was only when we started receiving large bills from the Finance Department that we found out otherwise. Given our unhappy experience with the Abigail Shrier event, for which we were stuck with that $7,847 bill, we wondered how the University handled the billing for the Students for Justice in Palestine (SJP) rally the very next day.
The SJP rally on near the Rotunda just three days after Hamas’ horrific October 9 attacks on Israel assuredly warranted University Police Department (UPD) watching. Emotions were running high nationally and internationally. The SJP chapter at UVA was affiliated with a national organization widely believed to be funded by radical Muslim groups. Antisemitic incidents were on the rise. As it happened, while the rhetoric was inflamed, the event itself was peaceful. Still, given what they knew in the run-up to the event, UPD was fully justified in assigning police officers to the event.
We submitted a Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) request to find out how much that rally and a subsequent one cost. Here is the answer we received: “Security expenses incurred for the October 12, 2023 rally amounted to $11,422.13. Security expenses incurred for the October 25, 2023 rally amounted to $6,971.25.”
We also asked for copies of any bills submitted to SJP to reimburse the University for those expenses. The response: “The University has no records responsive to your request.”
Wait, what? The University charged the Jefferson Council $7,847 for someone to speak quietly indoors about transgender issues but nothing for a rally where demonstrators chanted, “Palestine will be free from the river to the sea” — essentially a call to eradicate the Israeli state, and, in the minds of some, commit genocide against the Jews. How was that possible?
Here is the explanation given by University spokesman Brian Coy for why UVA charges some groups for security but not others:
The simple explanation is that we do make a distinction between protests and demonstrations in our outside spaces and planned events where organizations reserve University facilities.
… University policy prohibits protests and demonstrations inside University facilities, but they enjoy broader protection as expression when they are conducted outside in accordance with the law and University policy. As we learn of a protest that may be contentious, the University has a responsibility to prepare for the unlikely event that a public safety concern may arise, but we do not charge organizers (or counter-protestors or observers) for resources that are expended in the course of our efforts to keep people safe. Our approach is similar to that which local authorities would follow in response to a protest or demonstration, and we follow the same approach regardless of the viewpoint of the organization or the content of the protest.
We do regularly charge organizations for security or other University resources used when they reserve a University facility for a planned speech, presentation, performance, or other event. As you noted from your fact finding, that approach applies equally to groups as well, regardless of the viewpoint of the organization or the content of the event.
What you’ve identified as a disparity is a function of the very different nature of these two categories of gatherings/events, not any favoritism on the University’s part of one viewpoint or another. As I noted above, we treat rallies and protests the same way regardless of the group, and we treat events using reserved University facilities equally as well.
As far as we know, the University has in fact applied this (flawed) criterion consistently. Just as the Jefferson Council had to pay for security for former Vice President Mike Pence and again for former Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, the Center of Politics was billed to pay for socialist Senator and former presidential candidate Bernie Sanders.
But that’s not the issue. This is: Why should the Jefferson Council (or the Center for Politics, or anyone else) pay for security to guard against disruptions caused by others? If attendees of a Queer Student Union event can’t abide by the restrictions of where to hold their protest — the demonstrators were supposed to rally in the amphitheater but came up the steps to crowd the entrance to Minor Hall where our speaking event was held — why does the University bill us and not the Queer Student Union for the police presence?
University policy puts a significant damper on our ability to partner with conservative, moderate and independent groups at UVA to bring in speakers who would add a dash of diversity to a speaker line-up that, with rare exceptions, ranges from center-left to far-left. Shortly after the Shrier event, the University billed us $11,799 to provide security for conservative author Heather Mac Donald.
Over two years of bringing speakers to UVA, we have been charged roughly $47,000 total in security fees. The Shrier and Mac Donald events were inflated by the addition of 10% “administrative fees” on top of charges for police manpower.
In deciding whom to charge security fees, UVA has applied criteria that are nominally neutral. But in actual practice, there is no rational nexus between the need for security and the location of an event indoors or outdoors. Indeed, the Students for Justice in Palestine had to apply for a permit that specified where the rally would be held and what kind of amplified sound (if any) could be used. The event was organized, it had a sponsoring group, and the group’s leaders consulted with Student Affairs officials beforehand. What difference did the outdoor location make? How was the SJP different from the Queer Student Union marching, chanting, and screaming insults outdoors?
By charging the sponsors of indoor speakers as opposed to speakers with megaphones at outdoor rallies, the University privileges militant leftist activists who like to organize protest marches and punishes groups that prefer more settled indoor events. Conservative students at UVA hold the occasional vigil, but they don’t organize large protest demonstrations. They don’t disrupt other peoples’ events. They don’t get into peoples’ faces and spew hatred, hurl insults and make veiled threats. Only the left does that with the University’s sanction.
(The Unite the Right rally and the infamous march of tiki torch-bearing White supremacists down the Lawn took place five-and-a-half years ago. None of the marchers were enrolled at UVA. And many of them were subsequently banned, via No Trespass Orders, from setting foot on University grounds again.)
The only way for UVA to be neutral in practice is to accept its obligation to shoulder the cost of keeping the Grounds safe at all times for all people, regardless of whether the event is an outdoor rally or an indoor speaker event.