SAN FRANCISCO (CN) – The University of California, Berkeley, on Monday agreed to alter its events policy to settle a federal lawsuit claiming it used "unconstitutionally vague" rules to suppress conservative speech on the campus.
Following a rash of violent protests in Berkeley during the first few months of Donald Trump's presidency, the university cited security concerns in canceling a planned speech by conservative firebrand Ann Coulter in April 2017.
In response, 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 – quickly filed a federal lawsuit accusing the college of viewpoint discrimination.
After submitting a preliminary settlement in court Monday morning, both sides sent out statements framing the deal as a legal victory.
UC Berkeley said it merely made "non-substantive" changes to its events policy and agreed to pay the conservative youth groups $70,000, "a fraction of the attorney’s fees that plaintiffs incur in a lawsuit of this sort."
"Given that this outcome is all but indistinguishable from what a courtroom victory would have looked like, we see this as the least expensive path to successful resolution of this lawsuit," UC Berkeley spokesman Dan Mogulof said in a statement.
But the plaintiffs say the policy changes are far more substantial than the university is willing to acknowledge.
The Young America's Foundation, which organizes conservative speaking events at colleges across the country, said the deal will rescind the university's "discriminatory" security fee policy and abolish its "heckler's veto," meaning protesters will no longer be able to shut down speaking events.
"YAF’s landmark victory for free expression – long squelched by Berkeley’s scheming administrators who weaponized flawed policies to target conservatives – shows that the battle for freedom undertaken by YAF on campuses nationwide is a necessary one," said the group's spokesman Spencer Brown in a statement.
Since the controversy first erupted, conservatives have seized on UC Berkeley's reputation as the "Birthplace of the Free Speech Movement" in the 1960s to highlight the irony of college administrators allegedly stifling conservative views on campus.
In April, U.S. District Judge Maxine Chesney rejected claims that the college engaged in intentional viewpoint discrimination and that its amended events policy was unconstitutionally vague, except for one line that allows stricter rules to be imposed based on an event’s "complexity."
The settlement specifies what criteria university officials can use to determine if an event will likely affect campus safety, security or services. Those criteria include the event's location; estimated number of participants; date, time and duration of the event; weather conditions; expected noise level; evidence of credible threats; resources needed for security; and all other relevant "viewpoint- and content-neutral considerations."
The new policy also specifies that only the chancellor and a select number of administrators can decide which events require stricter conditions to provide adequate security and minimize campus disruptions.
UC Berkeley maintains that despite those few tweaks, it believes its event policy was vindicated by the court.
“During the spring semester and the current semester, it has been that very policy that has enabled the campus to work effectively with the Berkeley College Republicans as they hosted numerous events featuring prominent conservative speakers without incident or interruption," said Mogulof.
Meanwhile, the plaintiffs insist it was their lawsuit that forced the college to change its tune.
"After more than a year of UC Berkeley battling against the First Amendment rights of its own students, the university finally felt the heat and saw the light of their unconstitutional censorship,” said Brown of Young America's Foundation.
The original lawsuit was filed after the university abruptly canceled another planned speech by conservative provocateur Milo Yiannopoulos amid violent protests in February 2017.
Last month, a federal judge dismissed a separate lawsuit brought by four Bay Area residents who were injured in riots the night Yiannopoulos was scheduled to speak in Berkeley.
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