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ADF letter prompts Pitt officials who incited mob to withdraw unconstitutional fee levied on victims

Intercollegiate Studies Institute, College Republicans no longer responsible for $18K security fee

Thursday, Aug 24, 2023

PITTSBURGH – University of Pittsburgh officials have rescinded an $18,734 security fee levied against the Intercollegiate Studies Institute and the university’s College Republicans chapter after a letter from ADF informed the school that the fee violated the student groups’ First Amendment rights.

ADF attorneys sent the letter in June on behalf of ISI and the College Republicans chapter after Pitt officials assessed the security fee in connection with a discussion on gender identity ideology the two conservative groups sponsored in April that university representatives had encouraged protestors to disrupt.

“Encouraging students to shut down a legitimate campus event and then charging the organizers outrageous security fees is the kind of speech suppression the First Amendment forbids,” said ADF Senior Counsel Philip A. Sechler. “While the university denies allegations that its officials incited the disruption, it was right to drop the financial charges against the Intercollegiate Studies Institute and the College Republicans chapter. The university appears to have realized that the cost of chilling student speech is too high.”

On April 18, the student groups hosted an event on the topic “Should Transgenderism Be Regulated by Law?” The event was to include a moderated debate featuring speakers Michael Knowles and Brad Polumbo, 30 minutes of audience Q&A, and a 40-minute meet-and-greet for attendees to meet Knowles. College Republicans planned the event months in advance and followed all university policies and procedures for scheduling it. Although the university initially advised ISI it would be responsible for only around $2,000 in security costs, the university insisted just six days before the event that ISI pay an estimated $16,925 in security fees. Then, on May 19, the university assessed ISI a total of $18,734 for event security and, on June 1, demanded ISI “process this transfer very soon.”

The ADF letter noted that the university’s own communications prior to the event “incited many in the Pitt Community to violence and substantially contributed to the disruption that caused the event to be prematurely terminated.” For instance, on March 10, the university issued a press release calling the April 18 event “toxic and hurtful for many people in our University community.”

ADF further explained that the university violated the constitutional rights of ISI and the university’s College Republicans by assessing an improper security fee on the event, and failing to control the riotous crowd and instead urging ISI to terminate the event before it even concluded.

“ISI is committed to mutual respect, friendship, and the pursuit of knowledge between college students and faculty, which is why we felt compelled to challenge this outrageous fee for a campus event,” said ISI President Johnny Burtka. “We hope university officials have learned that, no matter how much they tried to charge our organization, they will face consequences for attempting to chill Constitutionally protected speech.”

  • Pronunciation guide: Sechler (SECK’-lur)

The ADF Center for Academic Freedom is dedicated to protecting First Amendment and related freedoms for students and faculty so that everyone can freely participate in the marketplace of ideas without fear of government censorship.

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ABOUT Philip A. Sechler

Philip A. Sechler serves as senior counsel at Alliance Defending Freedom, where he focuses on academic and religious freedom. Before joining ADF, Sechler had a long career in private practice, with substantial first-chair trial experience in courts around the country on a variety of complex litigation matters. He was also a Distinguished Visitor from Practice at Penn State Law School, where he spent four years teaching. He also taught at the Antonin Scalia School of Law at George Mason University and at the Georgetown University Law Center, where he continues to teach a course on Professional Responsibility. Sechler received his bachelor’s degree with high distinction from Pennsylvania State University, and he earned his Juris Doctor from Georgetown University Law Center, where he graduated summa cum laude and was Editor-in-Chief of The Georgetown Law Journal. Following law school, he clerked for the Honorable Francis D. Murnaghan, Jr., of the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 4th Circuit. Sechler is admitted to practice before the District of Columbia and Virginia bars, as well as the U.S. Supreme Court and numerous federal appellate and trial courts.