It’s time for Cal Poly to adopt a written policy on ‘free speech events’

University of California police in riot gear line up on the other side of a fence from protesters outside Spanos Theatre at Cal Poly on Jan. 31, 2017.
University of California police in riot gear line up on the other side of a fence from protesters outside Spanos Theatre at Cal Poly on Jan. 31, 2017. jjohnston@thetribunenews.com

Cal Poly has been hit with criticism for applying what some are calling a “double standard” in its treatment of two campus clubs — the College Republicans and the Muslim Student Association.

As it turns out, university officials have a reasonable explanation.

Some background: As recently reported by Tribune writer Nick Wilson, the university did not charge Cal Poly College Republicans a security fee for last week’s speech by right-wing provocateur Milo Yiannopoulos. The Muslim Student Association, however, was charged $4,888 for security services provided at a three-day conference held in January 2016.

That has led to accusations of inequity and calls for Cal Poly to refund the money. We understand why: Absent any context, it appears horribly unfair.

On Tuesday, Cal Poly elaborated on why it acted as it did. For one thing, it decided in September — several months after the Muslim Student Association’s event — that it would no longer charge student clubs a security fee for events that fall under the umbrella of free speech.

Here’s one reason for that change: The university would leave itself open to a lawsuit if it were to charge a security fee. That’s exactly what happened to Cal State L.A., which was sued by the conservative group Alliance Defending Freedom after protesters interfered with a speech by right-wing Breitbart editor Ben Shapiro. Among other accusations, the suit claims the security fee violated Shapiro’s First Amendment rights.

But it’s not solely a legal issue. Cal Poly also points to its commitment to allowing free speech activity “in a viewpoint-neutral way.”

In other words, it’s committed to allowing controversial speakers on campus — and equally committed to allowing nonviolent protesters to register their opposition.

Not everyone agrees that taxpayers should have to foot the bill for policing protests. Several Tribune readers bristled at the $55,400 bill for providing security for the Yiannopoulos event at Cal Poly.

But what’s the alternative? If the college didn’t step up and pay for security, who would?

College Republicans? Milo Yiannopoulos? Protesters? Audience members? Perhaps ask them all to pitch in and cover the bill?

That’s never going to happen.

As we’ve said before, we support Cal Poly’s decision to cover security costs for free speech activities.

Had the university been more transparent in announcing the change back in September, perhaps it would have saved itself some grief.

Going forward, the university is drafting a written policy to provide better guidance on matters such as security fees.

We look forward to it. Having a clear, written policy should go a long way toward avoiding accusations of favoritism.