Two conservative student groups at the University of California-Berkeley have sued the school for stifling conservative speech on campus, after University officials cancelled conservative pundit Ann Coulter’s speech last week, citing safety concerns.
Filed in federal court Monday on behalf of the UC Berkeley College Republicans and Young America’s Foundation, the lawsuit—which names UC Berkeley President Janet Napolitano, the head of campus police, and other University officials as defendants—alleges that the school’s recent adoption of an “unwritten and unpublished policy” permits University officials to “unreasonably restrict the time, place, and manner of any campus event involving ‘high-profile speakers’” in a way that has been discriminatory against conservative speakers.
At a press conference held Thursday afternoon, San Francisco attorney Harmeet Dhillon said the University “admits that this policy exists, and it admits that the application of a policy is largely driven by the anticipated reaction of a hostile crowd to conservative speakers at Berkeley.” Dhillon also insisted the policy violates the First Amendment.
The suit comes after Dhillon, a Republican National Committee member representing the student groups, threatened to take legal action against the University if they did not secure a venue for Coulter to speak this coming Thursday, May 4.
The school responded with a letter stating that it could offer Coulter a speaking venue on May 2—a time that the University has referred to as a “‘dead week,’ in which no classes are held,” according to the lawsuit. Coulter has since stated that she isn’t available on May 2.
In a statement responding to the lawsuit, UC Berkeley said the plaintiffs' claims of discrimination were unfounded.
“The allegation contained in the complaint filed by Young America’s Foundation that Ms. Coulter is being prohibited from speaking because of her conservative views is untrue,” the statement reads. “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 also said it was “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.”
Speaking to The Daily Beast, Robert Shibley, Executive Director of FIRE (Foundation for Individual Rights in Education), said the new complaint makes a strong case that the University is indeed not clearly administrating its policy involving “high-profile speakers,” given that the school hosted prominent speakers like Vincente Fox Quesada, former President of Mexico, and a former presidential advisor to President Bill Clinton the same month that Coulter was scheduled to speak on campus.
“If ‘high-profile’ is a synonym for people who are controversial, then that’s a viewpoint-based burden on speech,” said Shibley. “Schools need to provide a way for speakers to communicate and if they want to restrict speech, those restrictions have to be narrowly tailored and in the service of a significant governmental interest,” he added, citing the 1989 Ward v. Rock Against Racism Supreme Court case which set the standard that content-neutral speech regulations in a public forum be “narrowly tailored to serve governmental interests.”
According to Shibley, most speech zone policies—even if they are content-neutral—do not meet this standard, but we cannot assess Berkeley’s “high-profile speaker” regulation until we know how the policy is enforced.
Pranav Jandhyala, one of the organizers of the original event with Coulter, told The Daily Beast that he doesn’t support the lawsuit.
“We understand the administration’s concerns about security and think we need to work with them rather than against them,” said Jandhyala, a freshman at UC Berkeley and president of Bridge USA, a nonpartisan campus political organization which was founded in response to the violent protests of Milo Yiannopoulos’s scheduled speech at the Univeristy in March.
“We recognized a need for space on campus where all political beliefs would be welcome but subject to rigorous debate and discourse,” said Jandhyala, who identifies as politically moderate and said the purpose of Bridge USA is to encourage students “who are still figuring out their political views to be exposed to a diverse range of opinions.”
Jandhyala added that the group is waiting to see whether or not the lawsuit will force the administration to secure a venue on Thursday.