Should UC Merced charge Republican club $1,800 fee to host a conservative speaker?

Conservative writer Ben Shapiro speaks for 120 seconds at a California legislative hearing to discuss balancing free speech and public safety.
Conservative writer Ben Shapiro speaks for 120 seconds at a California legislative hearing to discuss balancing free speech and public safety. AP

Members of a conservative student organization at UC Merced are wondering whether the university can and should charge them a roughly $1,800 security fee to bring a controversial high-profile speaker to campus.

The College Republicans, a registered student organization, is in the process of organizing a campus speaker event that would invite Ben Shapiro to campus in April.

The plan is to have Shapiro, a conservative commentator, author and podcaster who has appeared on the cable news circuit, speak mainly on the topics of academic freedom, academic bias and free speech on campus, said Phillip Cunningham, the organization’s staff adviser.

“We’re hopeful to have him this semester,” Cunningham said, noting that the group is still in the fundraising process.

Last week, the University told the organization it would need to foot about $5,000, including $1,823.60 in security costs for the Shapiro visit, Duran said.

That fee includes event security for four hours with a UC Merced Police sergeant, three officers and five community service officers, according to an estimate by the university..

Additional costs include about $2,333 for facilities and $830 for parking and other expenses.

But the student organization is wondering whether they need to pay some of the costs after consulting with legal counsel.

Harrison Duran, the College Republicans president, said the group enlisted the help of Freedom X, a conservative college free speech organization, after they were initially given a verbal rough estimate of up to $18,000 for security.

That gave members the impression that university administrators don’t want Shapiro to come to campus, Duran said.

Freedom X sent a letter to the university on behalf of the organization arguing that the exorbitant fee violated students’ free speech.

A day later, Duran said, the university sent the lower, official estimate.

UC Merced spokesman James Leonard said the university’s estimate wasn’t in response to the legal notice, and was based on rough estimates of event costs.

Leonard said the higher estimate for security was likely the ballpark cost of a major event at the university that may have been discussed, and that any figures mentioned at that stage of planning shouldn’t have been considered accurate estimates.

“The College Republicans have not yet finalized a contract with the speaker for the event, so we cannot provide more specific details at this time,” according to a university statement.

Duran said the group’s legal counsel wants the cost lowered, or eliminated entirely.

“We’re actively seeking funding right now,” Duran said, noting that several outside groups have pledged funds but the College Republicans still have more to raise.

Shapiro has been controversial during visits to other college campuses.

His lecture at the University of Minnesota St. Paul on Feb. 26 sparked protesters and questions about how university officials handled a change in venue, according to a FOX 9 news report.

The San Francisco Bay area CBS affiliate reported that Shapiro’s visit to UC Berkeley last September invited hundreds of mostly peaceful protesters amid high security.

Duran said members believe campus is “fairly one-sided in political ideology” with a progressive slant.

“We don’t mind the opposition (to Shapiro visiting campus), but we hope it would create more of a diverse realm of thought on campus,” Duran said.