UC Berkeley (UCB) was recently sued by conservative organizations over alleged free speech violations, reigniting the debate over what separates hate speech from free speech.
The Young America’s Foundation, a conservative youth organization, and the UCB College Republicans filed the suit last year in response to the university’s cancellation of an event showcasing wellknown conservative pundit and author Ann Coulter, who rose to prominence during the Clinton administration. The Trump administration backed the lawsuit on Jan. 25.
UCB banned Coulter from speaking as a precaution after riots broke out in September 2017 when right-wing political commentator Milo Yiannopoulos spoke on campus.
“The campus is committed to ensuring that student groups may hold events with speakers of their choosing, and it has expended significant resources to allow events to go forward without compromising the safety or security of the campus,” said UCB spokesperson Roqua Montez in an email.
The initial suit, filed in April, alleged UCB discriminated against conservative viewpoints but was dismissed in October 2017. It was then amended and resubmitted after Coulter’s speech was cancelled to include information about how the university’s speaker policy was implemented differently for liberal and conservative student organizations.
The U.S. Department of Justice published a statement of interest for the lawsuit on Thursday, supporting the plaintiffs’ argument that UCB’s speaker policy is in violation of the First Amendment and must be changed. A hearing is scheduled for Feb. 16 in the U. S. Northern California District Court in San Francisco.
After receiving feedback from the campus community, UCB changed its high-profile speaker policy, making it easier for student groups to bring speakers to campus. The previous policy required event organizers to give the administration a minimum of eight weeks notice if an event was expected to have more than 200 people or if alcohol or outdoor amplified sound was involved. The new policy has reduced the timeline to six weeks and increased the crowd minimum to 300.
Courts have yet to draw a line between free speech and hate speech, but this lawsuit has opened the door for more conversation on the issue.