Progress NC found out free speech can come with a $1350 price tag, at least when on N.C. State University’s campus.
Progress NC Action sought a permit from N.C. State University to allow less than two dozen people demonstrate outside a Dec. 9 forum featuring Grover Norquist, the polarizing, small-government proponent whose anti-tax pledges have been a central issue with ongoing federal “fiscal cliff” talks.
But N.C State University planned on charging the non-profit group $1350, a fee the public university’s lawyer said was to pay eight to 10 police officers to watch over the demonstrators.
Progress NC Action canceled their plans to demonstrate based solely on the cost, said Gerrick Brenner, the group’s executive director. (Progress NC Action is the political action arm of Progress NC, a group whose board includes several prominent Democrats and has focused on the actions of the Republican-led legislature and Gov.-elect Pat McCrory.)
“The idea that a demonstration would need eight to 10 officers is ludicrous,” Brenner said. Progress NC has held similar types of events all over the state, and never had any issues or been charged an amount that high, he said.
All the more ironic, Brenner said, was the name of forum the group was demonstrating outside – the Redesigning Democracy Summit. The summit, held Dec. 9 and 10, was focused on civic engagement and part of a series of events hosted by former Gov. Jim Hunt’s Institute for Emerging Issues. Norquist, of the conservative Americans for Tax Reform, spoke on a panel Sunday with the co-founder of MoveOn.org, a liberal public policy advocacy group and significant fundraising vehicle for the national Democratic party.
It’s unclear whether N.C. State police provided separate security for that event, though records provided to N.C. Policy Watch show no charges.
The university, for its part, said it tried to work with Progress NC by waiving the three-week prior notice it requires for most events and eventually lowered the initial cost to $150 after a lawyer for Progress NC questioned the bill.
“We bent over backwards to accommodate the group,” said Mick Kulikowski, a university spokesman.
N.C. State Chancellor Randy Woodson did not return a phone call seeking comments.
But how much the university dropped the charges is under dispute.
Progress NC said they were told costs would be $500, with the possibility of it being more if additional protesters went to the event.
That account appears in line with email communication provided by Brenner between N.C. State University attorney Eileen Goldgeier and Michael Weisel, a Raleigh attorney who represented Progress N.C.
Kulikowski said the amount was further lowered to $150, but Brenner said that cost was provided to media that inquired about the spat, and not directly to Progress NC until late Saturday afternoon when Weisel received an email stating the amount would be dropped to $150. The $500 figure was the last one the group was quoted before canceling the demonstration Friday evening, with the possibility of being charged more if additional demonstrators arrived, Brenner said.
The university lowering its price after lawyers and media questioned the amount is troubling, said Chris Brook, legal director for the North Carolina chapter of the American Civil Liberties Union.
“We’re calling into question whether the original figure is arbitrary,” Brook said. “When you’re talking about $1350, that’s roughly akin to telling the vast majority of folks that they can’t engage in free speech.”
The First Amendment of the U.S. Constitution gives a wide berth of rights to individuals, including the rights to protest and free speech, Brooks said. Though governmental agencies can require that organized demonstrators apply for permits ahead of time, agencies are largely prevented from charging fees that would be considered excessive to hold demonstrations on public properties, Brook said.
Even demonstrations for causes that many consider vile, like the Westboro Baptist Church’s picketing of military funerals and potential plans to show up at the funerals of victims of last Friday’s massacre at a Connecticut elementary school, are allowed under the First Amendment, reiterated in a U.S. Supreme Court ruling last year.
The policy the university leaned on indicated that the school states that groups can absorb the cost of security “when there is a threat of disruption of an assembly, event, or public address, for protection of university property, when there is a threat of damage and to maintain public order for large events, security will be provided for the event as necessary based on a security assessment by University Police.”
Justin Guillory, the Progress NC staffer who applied for the permit, said he was never told by the university that the group’s event was deemed a safety concern despite his asking for the university to provide an answer.
It also differs from what happens at other state universities and state institutions. The University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill doesn’t charge demonstrators for security, but does pursue criminal charges and restitution if university property is damaged, according to Randy Young of UNC’s public safety department.
The state Department of Administration also doesn’t collect money from demonstrators looking to use the state-owned property in the capital city managed by the agency, including the N.C. Capitol and Halifax Mall area behind the N.C. General Assembly.
The university said its charged groups in the last couple of years for security, including university athletic events, political campaigns making speeches in election season and for “Packapalooza,” a street festival held for students on the first week of classes, according to Kulikowski.
“When something comes up and security is necessary, we don’t have it in our budget to just send people out there,” he said.
A list of groups billed by the university for the last two years shows (click here to see the list) that the vast majority are for security provide at athletic events, with the school’s athletic department billed directly for the costs ranging from $170 to $32,171 paid in December 2011 for a men’s basketball game. The Jimmy V Golf Classic, an annual fundraiser for cancer research, was charged $3,626 for providing security for this summer’s golfing event.
During the recently election season, President Barack Obama’s Organizing for America paid $255 for “early voting security” and the N.C. Republican Party was charged $240 for a similar event the next day.
Brenner said the decision to charge his group was akin to a “free speech fee” and that he hopes, if anything, attention on the policy spurs the university to change.
Note: This article has been changed from its original form to reflect that Progress NC Action was told the price would drop to $150 late Saturday afternoon, after the group had announced Friday it would cancel the demonstration because of the cost.
Questions? Comments? Reporter Sarah Ovaska can be reached at (919) 861-1463.