SAN FRANCISCO (CN) – Despite its reputation as the “birthplace of the Free Speech Movement,” the University of California Berkeley uses “unconstitutionally vague” rules to curb speakers like Ann Coulter from voicing conservative views, a new lawsuit claims.
The Young America’s Foundation, a Tennessee nonprofit, and the Berkeley College Republicans, who reportedly paid a combined $20,000 to cover Coulter’s speaking fee, sued the university in federal court on Monday after it cancelled Coulter’s visit to campus.
The college nixed Coulter’s April 27 appearance due to public safety concerns following a violent clash between supporters of President Donald Trump and counter-protesters in Berkeley on April 15.
Coulter is a conservative firebrand, pundit and author, whose vehement views on immigration, Islam and other heated topics have made her a target of liberal scorn.
The university offered to reschedule Coulter’s speech at an alternate venue on May 2, but groups sponsoring the talk say holding the event during the no-classes “dead week” at a venue far from the main campus and imposing a 3 p.m. curfew interferes with their First Amendment rights.
The university applies its unwritten policy on high-profile speakers in a discriminatory manner to restrict conservative speech on campus, the groups claim in their lawsuit.
“It appears that the true aim of the high-profile speaker policy is to make it as difficult as possible for a disfavored speaker to hold a successful event at UC Berkeley, by forcing the event timing to conflict with classes, by requiring that the event take place when large venues are occupied with classes, by requiring that the venue be far from where students are likely to be gathered, and therefore difficult to reach during the narrow window of time allotted during the daytime,” the 30-page complaint states.
The university’s insistence that details of the event not be publicized until just before the speech and its requirement that non-students pay a “security fee” to attend serve as further evidence that the college restricts free speech in a subjective and unlawful manner, the groups claim.
In a letter to the groups, the university said it received “very specific intelligence” regarding threats that could pose a grave danger to Coulter and those attending the event, and that it conducted a diligent search to find “a protectable space” available before the end of the academic year.
But the conservative groups say the university has bowed to the “hateful demands” of a “masked mob of outside agitators” instead of taking steps to ensure the safety and security of those attending conservative speaking engagements on campus, as it does for other events.
The University of California disagreed, releasing a statement claiming it welcomes speakers of all political viewpoints and is committed to providing a forum for Coulter to speak on campus. It called allegations that it is prohibiting Coulter from speaking because of her conservative views “untrue.”
“As the complaint itself notes, Young America’s Foundation has sponsored many other speaking events at UC Berkeley in past years, including that of conservative political commentator and author Ben Shapiro, and the organization’s efforts have led many notable conservatives to share their viewpoints with students and the public on campus,” the university system said. “UC Berkeley has been working to accommodate a mutually agreeable time for Ms. Coulter’s visit – which has not yet been scheduled – and remains committed to doing so. The campus seeks to ensure that all members of the Berkeley and larger community – including Ms. Coulter herself – remain safe during such an event.”
In February, the university called off another speech featuring the divisive, conservative figure Milo Yiannopoulos amid violent protests.
The lawsuit also claims the college forced the groups to cancel an April 16 speech featuring conservative writer David Horowitz by demanding they pay a $6,000 security fee six days before he was scheduled to speak.
When deciding whether to deem a certain speaker “high-profile” and impose restrictions, the college does not use objective criteria like anticipated crowd size or the speaker’s past media attention, number of best-selling books, status as a current or former head of state, Twitter followers, Nobel Peace Prize awards or television viewers, according to the lawsuit.
“Not surprisingly, by providing defendants carte blanche to control campus speech, defendants have been and are enforcing the high-profile speaker policy in a manner that discriminates based on the viewpoint expressed by the speaker and the hosting registered student organization,” the lawsuit states.
The complaint accuses seven University of California officials, including lead defendant UC President Janet Napolitano, of violating the First and Fourteenth Amendment rights of conservative speakers and the groups sponsoring their talks.
The plaintiffs seek damages and an injunction to block the university from “selectively enforcing” its high-profile speaker policy.
The groups are represented by Harmeet Dhillon of San Francisco.