UC Berkeley to settle free speech lawsuit with conservative groups

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Mary Zheng/File

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UC Berkeley announced Monday that it will settle a lawsuit brought against the campus over event policies that allegedly discriminated against high-profile speakers invited by conservative student groups.

Young America’s Foundation, or YAF, and Berkeley College Republicans, or BCR, brought the suit against the university in April 2017, alleging violations of their First Amendment rights, among other allegations. The agreed-upon settlement will now include a one-time $70,000 payment by the university to cover the plaintiff’s attorney costs, as well as a revision of the campus Major Events Policy.

“The settlement does not require the University to concede that any of the plaintiffs’ claims of previous viewpoint discrimination have any basis in fact, for they did not,” according to a UC Berkeley statement released by campus spokesperson Dan Mogulof. “The settlement agreement confirms that any and all efforts by plaintiffs to prove viewpoint discrimination by the campus have been abandoned.”

BCR and YAF initially sued the university over the campus’s speaker policies, prompted by the cancellation of the spring 2017 Milo Yiannopoulos, Ann Coulter and David Horowitz speaking events. BCR and YAF claimed that campus speaker policies constituted a “discriminatory imposition of curfew and venue restrictions” and violated the constitution by “imposing an unconstitutionally vague policy” on high-profile speakers, according to the original complaint.

Although a federal judge initially upheld the constitutionality of UC Berkeley’s event policy, BCR and YAF were allowed to amend their complaint in October 2017. After a federal judge rejected UC requests to dismiss this second effort, the university and the plaintiffs have decided to settle the suit.

According to the settlement, “major events” are now defined as any organized event that draws more than 300 people, significantly affects campus security, interferes with campus functions or serves alcohol, among other specified conditions. These criteria are further defined through amendments specified in the settlement.

The campus will also amend its security fee schedule for events planned for classrooms or ASUC Student Union venues to standardize UCPD security costs. The process for determining UCPD security costs for student organizations such as YAF and BCR will, however, remain unchanged, according to the campus’s statement.

“This landmark settlement means that all students at UC Berkeley now have the exciting opportunity to hear a variety of viewpoints on campus without the artificial tax of security fees selectively imposed on disfavored speech,” said Harmeet Dhillon, the attorney for BCR and YAF, in a statement Monday.

YAF also celebrated the outcome of the settlement, saying in a statement that “transparency and accountability” have now replaced a “notoriously murky” policy.

According to the campus statement, the compensation for attorney costs constitutes “a fraction of the attorney’s fees” amassed in the process of litigation and is less than the cost incurred had the university further pursued the case in court.

“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,” Mogulof said in the statement. “While we regret the time, effort and resources that have been expended successfully defending the constitutionality of UC Berkeley’s event policy, this settlement means the campus will not need to spend hundreds of thousands of dollars in unrecoverable defense costs to prove that UC Berkeley has never discriminated on the basis of viewpoint.”

Sophia Brown-Heidenreich is the city news editor. Contact her at [email protected] and follow her on Twitter at @sophiabrownh.