A federal judge Tuesday barred Kent State University from charging a gun-rights student group an estimated $1,800 for security at an upcoming event featuring “gun girl” Kaitlin Bennett, a graduate of the school.

The event, called “Let’s Talk Gun Rights,” is to be Monday in the Kent State student union, and is being organized by student group Liberty Hangout.

Bennett, who advocates students being able to carry guns on college campuses, founded the Liberty Hangout group before she graduated from Kent State in May.

She captured internet and media attention when she posed for a photo marking her graduation with an AR-10 rifle slung across her back. The photo, which she posted on Twitter, led to Bennett appearing on “Fox and Friends” several days after graduation.

On Tuesday, Judge John Adams granted a temporary restraining order on the security fee following a hearing in U.S. District Court in Akron.

At the hearing, Adams said he was “gravely concerned” that imposing the fee would impinge on the students’ and Bennett’s free-speech rights, according to Cleveland.com. Adams echoed arguments made by Liberty Hangout lawyers who have said that Kent State cannot shift the financial burden of security to student groups on the grounds that violent protesters are threatening to disrupt an event.

Adams is set to rule Dec. 13 on the student group’s request for a preliminary injunction that would continue the prohibition on charging the fees, which Kent State has said would pay for eight police officers and six "hall security" personnel.

Event to go forward

William Becker, president of the Freedom X legal group in Los Angeles representing Liberty Hangout, and KSU student Michael Heil, who is president of Liberty Hangout, have said the group wouldn’t be able to hold the Monday event if it had to pay the fee.

Becker, in an interview Tuesday, said he expects the judge to issue the preliminary injunction.

Becker said that Adams, in issuing the temporary restraining order, “already has sent the message that it seems likely that we will succeed on the merits of our [Liberty Hangout’s] lawsuit.”

Kent State spokesman Eric Mansfield said Tuesday that the university “will provide the same security without cost for the organization’s Nov. 19 event, and the university will withhold sending an invoice pending the outcome of the December hearing” on the preliminary injunction request.

Heil, 20, said Tuesday that the Monday event will go forward at the Kiva in the Kent State student union. The doors open at 7 p.m., he said.

“I’m glad we can stand up for what is right,” Heil said.

Liberty Hangout’s lawsuit, filed last week, says the imposition of the security fee policy is a violation of the students' rights to free speech and freedom of assembly. The policy is "unconstitutionally vague" and "effectively curtails students ability to hold the event" and "amounts to a form of censorship and punishment," the suit says.

Becker, reiterating arguments in the lawsuit, said Tuesday that Kent State’s security fee policy is vague and is an “ad hoc policy that responds to people who are hostile to the message the group [putting on an event] is presenting. Another group can use the Kiva hall and because there aren’t any threats of violence, they won’t be charged a security fee.”

KSU concerns

In an affidavit, Kent State University Police Chief Dean Tondiglia said he anticipates a capacity crowd for the Nov. 19 event. He said there were some additional security needs, in part because the FBI has said there have been two credible death threats against Bennett.

Bennett has filed at least two police reports in Stow about threats made against her, Tondiglia said.

Tondiglia said in the affidavit that he has "never considered a group or speaker's viewpoint," nor cost when making a security assessment, though he does estimate the number of officers needed.

He noted the Kiva auditorium seats about 410 people. Kaitlin Bennett — the speaker — has advertised the event on social media, where she has more than 100,000 followers, he said. He included a screen shot of Bennett's tweet:

"Since violent leftists prevented me from speaking to students … during my open carry walk (at Kent State University) in September, I will be returning on Nov. 19th to talk about gun rights on college campuses. Get your tickets now!"

Bennett was referring to the Sept. 29 open carry walk for which Kent State paid $65,000 in security. The walk was organized by Bennett and others, not the student group.

The university paid the $65,000 because the event was not sponsored by a student organization, according to a KSU lawyer's email that was part of the lawsuit filing.

 

Beacon Journal reporter Amanda Garrett contributed to this report. Katie Byard can be reached at 330-996-3781 or kbyard@thebeaconjournal.com.