Thugs Win Again

The Mansfield North Central Ohio Tea Party Association was planning to have a meeting featuring an anti-Islam (and, by some accounts, anti-Muslim) speaker. As usual, the meeting would be at the Mansfield High School in Mansfield, Ohio: The high school opens its meeting rooms to “any recognized political party or organization for the purpose of conducting discussions of public questions and issues,” and the Tea Party Association was taking advantage of this limited public forum.

But today’s event was kicked out of the high school, and had to be moved to another venue. The Mansfield News Journal reports that this move happened because of the school district’s “safety concerns.” “Mansfield City Schools Superintendent Dan Freund … said that, after consulting with Mansfield City Police, the school decided it could not guarantee public safety at a Mansfield North Central Ohio Tea Party Association event scheduled for 7 p.m.” And Freund made clear that the reason for the cancellation was “safety concerns and not … the presumed content of the scheduled speaker’s message.”

Fortunately, it looks like the Tea Party Association managed to line up a new meeting place, even at this short notice; and it may be that the speech won’t be much disrupted, though this sort of change of location often causes some loss of audience. But the broader point is much more troubling: Yet again, a talk that’s critical of radical Islam — and perhaps of Islam generally — has been kicked out of a location because of a fear of violence (whether stemming from specific threats related to this talk, or from threats made about other events in the past). Next time, the exclusion might interfere considerably more with the speech, especially if other government and private organizations follow suit.

Plus a powerful symbolic message is sent to those who are happy whenever such speech is interfered with: Threats of violence get results. Behavior that gets rewarded gets repeated.

The Cleveland chapter of the Council on American-Islamic Relations had also asked that the speech be canceled, and the NAACP asked “for a ‘rigorous review’ of the school’s facilities use guidelines and policies before an event scheduled for Mansfield Senior High School community room at 7 p.m. today.” But, short of closing the forum altogether, the school district can’t just exclude speakers on the grounds that they express anti-radical-Islam, anti-Islam, or anti-Muslim viewpoints, even when it comes to speech on government property: In a limited public forum such as this one, any limits on speech must be viewpoint-neutral. (Even exclusion based on fear of violent reaction might well be unconstitutional, even in a limited public forum, see Sonnier v. Crain (5th Cir. 2010); but CAIR and NAACP, it seems to me, spoke out before the cancellation of fear-of-violence grounds.) [UPDATE: I had thought this clear from the original post, but just to make it extra clear: CAIR and NAACP aren't the thugs here, though I think that to the extent they are asking for a viewpoint-based exclusion of the group, that is inconsistent with the First Amendment limited public forum caselaw. The thugs are the people whose past violence and threats of violence -- whether any specific threats were made in this case, or whether the government officials were simply extrapolating from past cases -- leads to restriction on speech that they oppose, because government officials and others come to fear a violent response.]

Note that the Mansfield policy starts out by saying that “The Board of Education believes that the grounds and facilities of this District should be made available for community purposes, provided that such use does not infringe on the original and necessary purpose of the property or interfere with the educational program of the schools and is harmonious with the purposes of this District.” But this doesn’t appear to be a limitation on the openness of the facilities to political groups; the statement of “belie[f]” is followed by an express command that “Facilities shall … be made available to … any recognized political party or organization for the purpose of conducting public discussions of public questions and issues.” And the board of education doesn’t seem to see the policy as authorizing the exclusion of viewpoints merely because the board disagrees with them. The board stressed that the exclusion was based not on the content of the speech as such, but because of “safety concerns” (albeit ones that flow from the content). Note also that the policy forbids “rais[ing] funds for political purposes,” and the event flyer apparently said that people were encouraged to donate; but that was not the basis for the board of education’s decision (and presumably if the board had insisted that no fundraising take place, the Tea Party Association might well have agreed).