After complaints that Stanford University was at risk of violating students' First Amendment protections, school administrators agreed to pay the high cost of security for a controversial student-organized conference titled "Communicating Values" taking place next month.
The student group organizing the April conference, Stanford Anscombe Society, describes the event as a chance to "engage in intellectual and civil discourse about the issues of marriage, family and sexual integrity."
The American Conservative reported that the event will promote ideas in opposition to marriage equality for all sexual orientations, which is a hot-button topic on the Stanford campus. The speakers list for the event includes Robert Lopez, Kellie Fiedorek and Ryan Anderson, who are outspoken critics of marriage equality.
The university had earlier told SAS that the organization would have to pay for event security. Due to the provocative nature of the event and controversial nature of the speakers, the Stanford Department of Public Safety estimated that security would cost $5,600.
The Anscombe Society called the four-figure fee a "tax" on free expression, according to a column in The National Reviewwhere writer Mike Gonzales called Stanford University's student government and administration "remarkably intolerant — of activities that support traditional sexual ethics and marriage."
Brianne Huntsman, a student, told Campus Reform that "I feel really bad for the SAS members because they didn’t want to come across as bigots but their message is very much bigotry."
But security wasn't the only funding controversy surrounding the conference.
The society first applied for funding from the Graduate Student Council in February, and the council allocated SAS $600.
That prompted students to complain that the university was funding "discrimination of a minority," the Stanford Daily reported.
At its next meeting, the council revoked the $600. One council member cited an "inclusivity clause" in the GSC Funding Guidelines that prohibits funding events or activities that "have an appearance or tone of exclusivity."
After the council pulled the funding, school safety officials announced the cost for security for the event.
Several organizations suggested that the university's actions discouraged free speech and therefore had First Amendment implications. It could also violate the Establishment Clause of the amendment. The non-partisan civil liberties organization Foundation for Individual Rights in Education said online that "blatant viewpoint discrimination is irreconcilable with the university’s obligations to protect free speech."
The foundation said the school may have effectively censored free expression based upon the content of the speech, which is illegal. "Speech promoting what many students at Stanford consider discrimination (in this case, speech in opposition to same-sex marriage) is, without question, protected by the First Amendment," FIRE stated.
The Heritage Foundation articulated a similar legal argument and said the university was allegedly censoring SAS "simply because the university doesn’t like its message."
FIRE sent a letter March 20 to Stanford President John Hennessey noting that the school is not only bound by the Constitution, but also by the Leonard Law, a California statue. It requires private schools like Stanford to comply with all constitutional free-speech guarantees that apply to public colleges and universities. The law exempts faith-based schools that may ban religious-oriented speech deemed contrary to the precepts of the religion.
That same day FIRE mailed its letter, Nanci Howe, associate dean of students and director of Student Activities and Leadership, alerted SAS in an email that the university "found more funds to subsidize the full cost of the security," according to the society's website.
Editor's note: The sixth paragraph of this article originally misidentified Brianne Huntsman. This has since been corrected.
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