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University of Pittsburgh called out for encouraging ‘heckler’s veto’ and violence to shut down conservative speaker

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“College is a partnership between students and faculty rooted in mutual respect, friendship, and the pursuit of knowledge. The university violated this sacred trust by inciting a riot that threatened the lives and liberties of students peacefully assembled to discuss and debate ideas.”

–JOHNNY BURTKA, INTERCOLLEGIATE STUDIES INSTITUTE

Alliance Defending Freedom (ADF) sent a letter to the University of Pittsburgh last week claiming the school charged certain clubs a high-security fee for an event due to their beliefs and then incited a riot forcing the event to be stopped prematurely.


Quick Facts


On April 18, Intercollegiate Studies Institute (ISI) and College Republicans were set to host a moderated debate featuring conservative speaker Michael Knowles and Brad Polumbo, an openly gay, libertarian journalist. The event also featured a question-and-answer period with students and a meet and greet. The topic for the night was titled: “Should Transgenderism be Regulated by Law?”

ADF claims that Pitt told ISI and College Republicans that they would be charged $2,000 for security costs. Yet six days before the debate, Pitt told ISI it would be responsible for $16,925 in security costs. About a month later, the university levied ISI with $18,734 in security fees.

ISI was forced to end its event after rioters showed up to shut it down and police officers claimed the situation was “deteriorating.” ADF claims that Pitt officials encouraged the rioters. In March, Pitt issued a press release calling the event “toxic and hurtful for many people in our University community,” while Pitt’s Provost Ann Cudd said in a March 16 message to the Pitt community that a speech by Knowles was “repugnant” and “hate-filled rhetoric.”

On April 14, a Pitt professor advised her students that “the Theatre Arts department, along with many other departments, students, faculty, and staff at Pitt, strongly condemns this event and has called on the University to cancel Knowles’ appearance due to his history of spreading hate speech and inciting violence against trans people.” She continued, “Unfortunately, it looks as though the event is still scheduled to take place,” and invited students to be a part of “several events planned for Tuesday April 18 in response to Knowles’ unwelcome presence on campus.”

ADF wrote, “Given the University’s incitement, it is no wonder an angry mob of hundreds assembled on campus to shut down the April 18 event with unlawful, violent behavior,” adding that police were “wholly ineffective” and allowed the mob to push and shove those attending the event, throw smoke bombs and other incendiary devices, and burn an effigy of Knowles.

The letter claims that Pitt’s charge of a security fee is unconstitutional. Citing Supreme Court and federal court precedent, ADF explained,

“‘Speech cannot be financially burdened, any more than it can be punished or banned, simply because it might offend a hostile mob.’ As other courts have noted in similar contexts, speech that is ‘met by violence or threats or other unprivileged retaliatory conduct by persons offended by [it] cannot lawfully be suppressed because of that conduct. Otherwise free speech could be stifled by the speaker’s opponents’ mounting a riot….’ Charging security fees based on the content of the speech is exactly the type of “suppression” the First Amendment does not permit. Such security fees are an unconstitutional heckler’s veto.”

This is not the first time Pitt has been accused of demanding unfair security fees against right-leaning students. ADF wrote the school in December 2018 demanding the $5,500 security fee charged to College Republicans and Young America’s Foundation be rescinded, and it was. ADF is asking Pitt to remove the fee against ISI, change its event scheduling guidelines, and compensate ISI for the costs of the April 18 event.

“What happened at the University of Pittsburgh is a tragedy. College is a partnership between students and faculty rooted in mutual respect, friendship, and the pursuit of knowledge,” ISI president Johnny Burtka stated. “The university violated this sacred trust by inciting a riot that threatened the lives and liberties of students peacefully assembled to discuss and debate ideas. This dereliction of duty is unacceptable in a free society, and ISI will fight to ensure it never happens again.”

If Pitt does not respond to the letter, the law firm says it will have “no option but to advise our clients to pursue other avenues of relief.”

If these claims are accurate, Pitt took a stance on the transgender topic and slandered other views. It used inflammatory rhetoric designed to portray Knowles and his presence on campus as “hateful.” It asked students to gather and show Knowles that he was not welcome. The university was tasked with protecting students’ right to free expression and instead it charged them predatory security fees (security which it failed to sufficiently perform). If all Pitt has to pay is what ADF has asked in its letter, it should count its blessings.

Pitt has discriminated against students because it did not like what a speaker they invited believes. This is viewpoint discrimination.

Proverbs 16:8 states,

“Better is a little with righteousness
Than great income with injustice.”

The University of Pittsburgh, like so many higher education institutions who either agree with or cower in the face of radical left-wing ideology, has betrayed its mission, which is to encourage students to think critically and acquire knowledge through rigorous debates and the free expressions of ideas. Instead, it has sought to shut down dissenting speakers who refuse to abide by an ideological orthodoxy that Pitt’s officials and professors believe should go unchallenged.

University leaders should feel great shame for their actions and re-embrace the principle of free speech, but that’s not likely. What is more likely is that the ADF letter — or a federal court — will force the University of Pittsburgh to pay the extra security costs that were needed because of its emotional demand for the heckler’s veto rather than the conservative students’ intellectual desire to hear both sides of a controversial topic.


Ready to dive deeper into the intersection of faith and policy? Head over to our Theology of Politics series page where we’ve published several long-form pieces that will help Christians navigate where their faith should direct them on political issues.

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