UC Berkeley can’t block lawsuit alleging censorship of conservatives, judge rules

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A federal judge this week rejected the University of California at Berkeley’s effort to dismiss a lawsuit accusing the school of discriminating against conservative speakers.

U.S. District Judge Maxine Chesney in San Francisco said two conservative groups can proceed with a lawsuit claiming the university imposed its “major events” policy and an earlier policy for “high-profile speakers” — resulting in unreasonable restrictions and fees suppressing conservative speech on campus, Reuters reported.

The Berkeley College Republicans and the Young America’s Foundation, a Tennessee group, had sued the university and its president, Janet Napolitano, after an appearance by conservative firebrand Ann Coulter last year was canceled amid security concerns.

Political commentator Ann Coulter on the Berkeley speech controversy and President Trump's agenda.

UC Berkeley has become the epicenter of ongoing free speech wars in the U.S. It canceled several appearances by conservative speakers amid the violence of black-clad Antifa activists. In February 2017, a speech by Milo Yiannopoulos was canceled after violent far-left activists started a riot in opposition to his presence.

The uproar over the cancelation prompted President Donald Trump to threaten to pull federal funding from the school if it “does not allow free speech and practices violence on innocent people with a different point of view.”

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But while the latest ruling may be seen as a victory for conservative groups, the judge said she was “unpersuaded” by claims that the school intentionally discriminated against conservative viewpoints, adding that the plaintiffs cannot seek punitive damages.

Chesney said the plaintiffs can pursue an equal-protection claim concerning a security fee charged for a speech by another popular conservative speaker, Ben Shapiro, as the fee was significantly higher than for Supreme Court Justice Sonia Sotomayor’s appearance at the same venue.

Harmeet Dhillon, who represents the plaintiffs, welcomed the court decision.

“It is good news that the case is going forward,” he told Reuters on Thursday. “The First Amendment is a core constitutional principle, and every government policy that restricts, censors or bars otherwise legal speech is unconstitutional.”

UC Berkeley was also pleased with the ruling, saying in a statement that it upholds the school’s events policy. The school added that the $9,000 security fee charged for Shapiro’s speech was “lawful and appropriate.”

Lukas Mikelionis

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