SAN FRANCISCO (CN) – The University of California, Berkeley, must face claims that it discriminated against conservative speakers like Ann Coulter, a federal judge ruled Wednesday.
U.S. District Judge Maxine Chesney found the plaintiffs adequately alleged that UC Berkeley used an overly broad events policy to charge excessive fees and impose other unreasonable restrictions on conservative speakers.
“We’re very pleased that our lawsuit against UC Berkeley officials in their individual and official capacities is moving forward,” said plaintiffs’ attorney Harmeet Dhillon. “We look forward to litigating these issues.”
Young America’s Foundation, a Tennessee conservative youth organization, and Berkeley College Republicans sued University of California President Janet Napolitano and other school officials in April 2017, claiming the college unconstitutionally suppresses conservative speech on campus.
The suit was filed just after the school nixed a planned April 27 event featuring conservative firebrand Ann Coulter, citing security concerns. The college later offered to reschedule the event at an alternate venue a week later. But the plaintiffs say the school would only hold the event at a venue a mile away from the main campus during the no-classes “dead week” with a 3 p.m. curfew.
The plaintiffs further complained the university required “exorbitant” security fees for events featuring conservative commentator Ben Shapiro in September 2017 and conservative writer David Horowitz, whose event was cancelled in April 2017 due to those costs, according to the lawsuit.
The plaintiffs say liberal speakers, like former Mexican president Vicente Fox and former Clinton White House official Maria Echaveste, were treated more favorably and allowed to speak at a central campus location during afternoon and evening hours.
Chesney rejected claims that university officials engaged in intentional “viewpoint discrimination,” finding the same security concerns were not an issue with more liberal speaking events compared to conservative speakers.
“If you’re concerned about violence, you can obviously put in restrictions,” Chesney said during court hearing in February.
However, the judge did find the university charged a much higher $9,162 security fee for the Shapiro event compared to an event featuring Supreme Court Justice and Obama appointee Sonia Sotomayor at the same venue.
Chesney found the university’s new “major events” policy, which was first rolled out in July 2017 with subsequent amendments, is not overly broad or vague, except for one line that allows officials to impose stricter rules based on an event’s “complexity.”
“I have no idea what they mean by complexity,” Chesney said during the hearing in February. “Who back there in the legal office at the University of California came up with this term?”
Chesney ultimately dismissed all claims, except for those based on the university’s former high profile speaker’s event policy, “complexity” in the major events policy, and conditions imposed on the Sotomayer speaking event compared to conservative speaking events.
The judge also dismissed the plaintiffs’ claim for punitive damages.
“We are pleased that the court carefully considered the issues and upheld the Major Events Policy that the campus adopted last year,” said Dan Mogulof, assistant vice chancellor of UC Berkeley’s Office of Communications and Public Affairs in an email to Courthouse News.
Mogulof said the university was justified in charging the fee, as it had spent more than $800,000 on security expenses for Shapiro’s visit.
“The campus strongly contends that the fees charged were lawful and appropriate, and this ruling does not conclude otherwise,” Mogulof said.
Mogulof added that the university does not have a secret unwritten speaker policy.
“The campus strongly denies that any such secret policy existed and it will continue to dispute any claims related to that issue,” Mogulof said.
Plaintiffs’ attorney Dhillon called the case “an example of student groups fighting back” against universities across the country suppressing conservative speech, especially schools in California.
“It’s a core constitutional right being impeded by the government, so we will move forward and vindicate their core First Amendment speech rights in court,” Dhillon said.
Both sides are scheduled to start settlement talks with a magistrate judge on June 5, Dhillon said.