Pro-life group accuses university of charging ‘viewpoint-based’ $5,400 event fee

University of New Mexico University of New Mexico. | Credit: Kit Leong/Shutterstock

A major pro-life group and a conservative advocacy organization are criticizing the University of New Mexico (UNM) for issuing an “unconstitutional viewpoint-based fee” for a campus event, one that came to more than $5,400. 

UNM charged its Students for Life chapter $5,461 in security fees to hold a campus event in April, the conservative Alliance Defending Freedom (ADF) said in a post earlier this month.

Travis Barham, senior counsel at ADF, told CNA that “free speech should be free” and that “it should not cost students thousands of dollars to speak on campus.” 

“The University of New Mexico can’t arbitrarily charge the students tens of thousands of dollars because some others on campus might react badly to the pro-life perspective,” Barham said. 

UNM, which is in Albuquerque, denied that the fee was charged because of the speaker’s viewpoints.

Cinnamon Blair, a university spokeswoman, told CNA that the fee was “based on the size and type of event, based on the information provided” by the Students for Life chapter to the campus police department.  

Pro-life group says school violated First Amendment

According to an Oct. 11 letter sent to the university’s attorney by Barham, the fees were charged to the pro-life student group to pay for the presence of “no less than” 30 University of New Mexico Police Department (UNMPD) officers at a talk given by Students for Life of America President Kristan Hawkins.

An April post on Students for Life’s website said the pro-life group was originally told by the university that they would have to pay as much as $8,140 because of security concerns about the “Lies Pro-Choicers Believe” lecture scheduled to be given by Hawkins on April 24.

Barham said in his letter that the event went smoothly without any incident and many of the extra police officers were dismissed early.

Barham in the letter accused the university of violating the First Amendment by imposing security fees that “represent an exercise of unbridled discretion.”

“[T]o exclude or burden speech because some deem it controversial is nothing more than viewpoint discrimination,” Barham said. “Charging security fees based on the content or viewpoint of the speech is exactly the type of ‘suppression’ the First Amendment does not permit. Thus, these security fees are an unconstitutional heckler’s veto.”

“In light of these constitutional violations,” Barham went on, “we ask that the university immediately rescind the security fees it has charged.” 

Blair, in contrast, told CNA that the university’s “security policy is clearly stated and applied and is not based on the viewpoint of a proposed speaker.” 

“UNM encourages its student groups to sponsor events on campus and provides extensive staff resources to aid their endeavors,” Blair said. “In this case, UNMPD took reasonable actions to protect all persons exercising their constitutional rights to speak.” 

Blair said the school’s Students for Life chapter agreed to the fee before the event. She added that the administration “greatly appreciates” the group’s “willingness to operate as a partner with regard to the planned event and take responsibility for assisting UNM in hosting an event in a manner that does not violate the constitutionally protected rights of others or pose a danger to anyone on campus.” 

“The ultimate charge following the event,” Blair explained, “was based on the security deployed and deemed necessary by the incident commander on the date of the event.”

More in US

Ultimately, Blair said, the pro-life group was charged one-third less than the originally projected fee because “lower than expected turnout” meant that “several officers were sent home early.”

Barham in his letter to the university granted that the student group accepted the potential fees before the event, but he argued that “to treat acceptance of a tentative figure given this power imbalance as a knowing, fully-informed, and voluntary waiver of constitutional rights is ridiculous.”

Barham told CNA that university officials have not yet responded to his letter.

“We await a response from the University of New Mexico and hope that they will rescind security fees,” he said. “Universities have a responsibility to protect the speech of all students, and by charging Students for Life over $5,000 in security fees, the University of New Mexico is violating that responsibility.”

This was not the first time that the Students for Life chapter at the University of New Mexico faced difficulties in hosting on-campus events.

In early November 2022, university officials informed Victoria Trujillo, then one of the group’s student leaders, that she had to move a pro-life event scheduled to take place on Election Day, Nov. 8, because of security concerns “due to the subject matter,” according to a post by Trujillo on Students for Life’s website. University officials said they would be unable to provide adequate security for the event amid the election.

The event ended up taking place on the scheduled day at an off-campus location.

(Story continues below)

Caroline Wharton, a representative for Students for Life America, told CNA that “it’s sad to see universities and colleges placing financial burdens on young students who just want to use their First Amendment rights.” 

“The price for free speech has already been paid by our brave service members,” Wharton said. “But if you’re pro-life at the University of New Mexico, that’s apparently not enough. For standing up for the preborn and advocating for vulnerable women, it’s going to cost you a lot more, thousands of dollars more.”

Our mission is the truth. Join us!

Your monthly donation will help our team continue reporting the truth, with fairness, integrity, and fidelity to Jesus Christ and his Church.