February 26, 2019

EDITORIAL: Ditch the Event Security Fee

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Surely, Cornell’s Event Management Planning Team wants to get it right this time. After last semester’s fiery blowback, EMPT recently announced that a “new, innovative” event security fee system was forthcoming. The announcement — a passing reference tucked away deep in the umpteenth line of a campus-wide bulletin — revealed no new plan, nor did it evince any new understanding of why the event security fee is so loathed.

We’ve got no doubt that EMPT has a wonderfully meticulous plan to charge student organizations for security, replete with venue size breakdowns and clever classification schemes for what constitutes a “controversy.” Better would be to scrap it all. The event security fee is in fundamental tension with the University’s commitment to free expression. It deserves to be nixed.

Readers will recall the saga of Michael Johns, Sr. (whose son writes a column for The Sun). Johns, leader of the small-government Tea Party movement, was invited to speak by the Cornell Political Union. Just a month after President Donald Trump’s inauguration, passions were running high. As The Sun reported at the time, CUPD, fearing rowdy protesters, obliged CPU to either pay $2,000 in security fees, cancel the event or take it private. To the chagrin of protesters, CPU took the event private, letting Johns lecture in a closed Rockefeller classroom.

Though we heartily disagree with Johns’ misguided argument — which included the claim Barack Obama left the economy worse off “by every metric,” one that might’ve landed Johns an F in ECON 1120 — we just as heartily uphold his right to express it. A legitimate, SAFC-funded student organization invited him to speak publicly. Protesters cannot be the reason he doesn’t do so.

That is what made CUPD’s security fee ultimatum so troubling. Given CPU could not plausibly pay the $2,000 fee, their options were to cancel or ban outsiders. Either way stifles speech.

The Michael Johns brouhaha is the security fee’s unfairness writ large. Cornell, in its Campus Code of Conduct, calls freedom of speech a “paramount value” on which the University has an “essential dependence.” It goes on, stating firmly, “To curb speech on the grounds that an invited speaker is noxious, that a cause is evil or that such ideas will offend some listeners is therefore inconsistent with a university’s purpose.”

Yet by maintaining the event security fee, the University hands any and all agitators a potent tool to curb speech on precisely those grounds — or any grounds at all.

Committed protesters need only threaten on social media to stir up trouble. That, in turn, raises EMPT’s assessment of security risk for a given event. The cost of security is then passed along to the event’s organizers via the security fee. In effect, the security fee acts as what Michael Johns, Jr. ’20 aptly called a “heckler’s tax.” That tax was certainly high for Johns’ Cornell Republicans when they paid $5,000 to bring Rick Santorum to campus.

Even for less controversial events, like a speaking gig with DNC Vice Chair Michael Blake the Cornell Democrats put on last year, the security fee can smother speech. In a bout of EMPT incompetence, the Dems tell us they got hit with a surprise $660 security fee — which they lacked the funds to cover. The Dems very well could’ve been forced to pull the event.

Luckily, they were able to negotiate the price down to $200, which was covered by revenue from apparel sales. But that shouldn’t be necessary. If an event has been approved by EMPT, its security should be covered, too. The University’s enduring commitment to free expression means taking on such security costs — so that even the riskiest views may be aired, and disputed, safely. As we’ve previously written, “The fear of protest or the specter of overwhelming fees should not inhibit open discussion.”

When President Martha Pollack first came into office in May 2017, she told The Sun, “We need to be a University that’s known as standing for free speech. Period. Full stop.” Now, Cornell has a unique chance to heed her advice — and ditch the event security fee entirely.