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Conservative students sue public university for its ‘total discretionary power’ over their speakers

‘Universities are meant to be a marketplace of ideas, and the marketplace isn’t free’

The University of Minnesota is being sued by several student groups and conservative commentator Ben Shapiro after the school invoked a school policy to bar Shapiro from appearing on its campus. The lawsuit, filed by the legal advocacy group Alliance Defending Freedom, calls the school’s “Large Scale Events Policy” a “Speech Suppression Policy” due to its lack of “narrow, objective, and definite standards” and the “unbridled discretion” it grants administrators.

“The problem with the policy is vague terms and the discretion it grant to administrators,” Tyson Langhofer, senior counsel and director of the Center for Academic Freedom with Alliance Defending Freedom, told The College Fix.

The suit stems from the university’s decision to deny a campus group, Students for a Conservative Voice, from inviting Shapiro to the school’s Minneapolis campus. The university instead ordered the event to be held on at a campus in St. Paul, in a much smaller venue than had been requested by the students.

The school justified the decision by citing its “Large Scale Events Policy.” The school applies this policy to events “taking place in a large campus venue or outdoor space that will draw a significant amount of the campus population, a large off-campus crowd, or represents a significant security concern.”

The lawsuit states that the policy’s terms are either vague or altogether undefined, and that it “allows the University to discriminate against…students at the University based upon the content and viewpoint of their speech.”

Speaking with The Fix, Langhofer said that the policy “has no objective standards or criteria of what constitutes a large scale event.”

“There is no standard,” he said. “The policy doesn’t contain those terms; it just has a committee that has total discretionary power. After the policy applies, the committee can decide the place, security fees, number of seats—everything. That’s completely decided by the committee.”

“Administrators cannot use subjective standards when choosing which speakers are controversial or potentially disruptive,” Langhofer added.

In addition to Students for a Conservative Voice, the university is also being sued by Shapiro and Young America’s Foundation, the latter of who was sponsoring the event.

In a statement, Young America’s Foundation spokesman Spencer Brown said that the organization “remains committed to holding administrators accountable for their censorship of conservative students at the University of Minnesota and across the country.”

Shapiro did not respond to a request for comment in time for publication.

Reached by The Fix via email, university spokesman Chuck Tombarge said: “We are aware of the complaint filed today in U.S. District Court. We will review it carefully to determine our next steps.”

Langhofer told The Fix that the lawsuit’s goal is “to get the university to modify its policy.”

“I would welcome discussion with the university, but if they continue to suppress speech and enforce these types of policies, we are happy to go to trial. Universities are meant to be a marketplace of ideas and the marketplace isn’t free,” he said.

IMAGE: Maksim Kabakou / Shutterstock.com

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Sarah George -- Georgetown University