Free speech lawsuit against UC Berkeley dismissed, but plaintiffs get another chance

People stand outside a September event with Ben Shapiro, brought to Cal by the Berkeley College Republicans, who sued their university for suppressing free speech. A judge dismissed the case Friday, but gave them a second chance. Photo: Pete Rosos

A judge on Friday dismissed the Berkeley College Republicans’ (BCR) allegation that UC Berkeley suppressed conservative speech by not paving the way for Ann Coulter to talk in April, but gave the group a month to file a new complaint.

A lawyer for BCR and Young America’s Foundation (YAF), which together sued Cal, said Judge Maxine Chesney’s request for an amended complaint was based in part on new developments that have occurred since the suit was filed. Chesney wanted to know whether a new UC Berkeley events policy satisfies some of the group’s demands, and she asked for additional details about how the university privileges liberal speech, said attorney Harmeet Dhillon.

The lawyer said her clients were prepared to craft a new complaint by the Oct. 27 deadline.

A UC Berkeley spokesman praised the judge’s dismissal of the original lawsuit.


“While we realize the litigation is likely to continue, the university is pleased that a federal judge has confirmed the campus is meeting its First Amendment obligations,” wrote Dan Mogulof in an email to Berkeleyside.

In an interview Saturday, Dhillon said the new UC Berkeley events policy, which details the steps student groups must take to bring a speaker to campus, is “unconstitutionally vague,” and does not successfully provide the injunctive relief her clients demanded in their original suit. The policy went into effect on an interim basis in August and will be finalized by January after feedback is gathered and incorporated.

The new rules are not substantially different than those in previous policies, but they include a more detailed timeline student groups and speakers must follow when booking a venue and making security arrangements. In many cases, groups must begin the process eight weeks ahead of an event and meet other deadlines along the way. According to the university, the policy is “content neutral,” meaning the same rules apply regardless of the nature of the speech or speaker. Student groups are responsible for the cost of security surrounding the events.

But Dhillon believes the document outlining the new rules is a “multi-week, bureaucratic, turgid mess of a policy.” She believes the policy gives Cal “substantial discretion” to approve or deny speakers, in part because there are stricter rules for speakers who are invited by academic departments than those who are not.

Harmeet K. Dhillon, an attorney for the Berkeley College Republicans, explains the lawsuit she filed on the group’s behalf at a press conference in April. Photo: Natalie Orenstein

In recent days, Harvard law professor Alan Dershowitz has publicly taken issue with the policy for the same reason, threatening to sue UC Berkeley for allegedly preventing him from speaking in a large venue because the campus Jewish group bringing him did not meet the eight-week deadline required of speakers not invited by a department. The author, who plans to visit Berkeley to present the “liberal case for Israel” later this month, said he believes he was only required to adhere to the policy because of his political views.


Responding to Dershowitz’s concerns, the UC Berkeley law school dean has invited Dershowitz to speak later this month, which means he is no longer subject to the eight-week requirement. A law school representative said the exact date and venue for his talk will be confirmed soon.

The BCR and YAF lawsuit stems from events surrounding the groups’ attempts to bring conservative speakers Coulter and David Horowitz to campus last spring before the new policy was in place. In both cases, the university placed some restrictions on where and when the events could occur, citing serious safety concerns after a large group of antifa protesters shut down a talk by Milo Yiannopoulos in February. Neither talk ended up happening.

The events and lawsuit have sparked national debates about the line between free speech and hate speech, and the university’s obligations to both promote a range of viewpoints on campus and protect its student body.

Since the suit was filed, BCR was successful in bringing a conservative speaker to Cal. On Sept. 14, writer Ben Shapiro spoke at a sold-out Zellerbach Hall. After saying no free venues were available, the UC Berkeley administration made an unusual decision to cover the premier venue’s reservation fee. The university  also shelled out an estimated $600,000 on security arrangements around the campus, but BCR and YAF, a national foundation that funds the students’ events, complained that the required security fee for the venue, the students’ responsibility, was unconstitutionally high and that Cal slashed the number of seats available for the event at the last minute.

Dhillon said she would go into new, “excruciating” detail in the amended complaint to demonstrate that Cal was dishonest, specifically in the lead-up to Coulter’s planned appearance.