San Francisco attorney Harmeet Dhillon (right), who represents the Berkeley College Republicans, speaks at a press conference on Monday, April 24, 2017, about a lawsuit filed by the group against the University of California. The student group that invited Ann Coulter to speak on campus says the university is discriminating against conservative speakers and violating students’ rights to free speech.  At left is legal partner Krista Baughman. (AP Photo/Eric Risberg)

Student groups have filed a lawsuit against the University of California at Berkeley, saying school officials violated their right to free speech when they canceled a talk by a controversial speaker last week over security concerns.

The lawsuit, filed by a prominent Republican lawyer, Harmeet Dhillon, on behalf of Berkeley College Republicans and Young America’s Foundation, a national group fighting First Amendment issues on many campuses, charges that the university’s actions smother the speech of conservative students whose opinions are a minority at Berkeley.

Berkeley has become a flash point in the national debate over free speech, with clashes between the far left and the far right flaring into violence this year. The prestigious public university, where the campus free speech movement was born decades ago, has in recent months become a magnet for protesters and masked agitators who have fought, set fires and tossed explosives.

In February, President Trump raised the threat of pulling federal funds from the public school after university police put the campus on lockdown and canceled a talk by another controversial figure, Milo Yiannopoulos, amid intense protests.

Here's a look at some of the protests in the Berkeley, Calif., area in recent months. (Gillian Brockell/The Washington Post)

Berkeley College Republicans invited conservative commentator Ann Coulter to speak on campus Thursday, but university officials canceled the event because of concerns that they could not ensure student safety.

They then invited her to speak next week instead at a safer location.

Coulter is not a plaintiff, but on social media she called it “our lawsuit” and said they had asked for a safe venue for her speech “THIS THURSDAY.”

The lawsuit contends, “Though UC Berkeley promises its students an environment that promotes free debate and the free exchange of ideas, it had breached this promise through the repressive actions of University administrators and
campus police, who have systematically and intentionally suppressed constitutionally-protected expression” by the students who invited Coulter and the many students whose political views align with the plaintiffs, “simply because that expression may anger or offend students, UC Berkeley administrators” and community members who disagree.

The lawsuit, which requests unspecified damages, attorney fees and a jury trial, names four university leaders, including University of California President Janet Napolitano and Berkeley Chancellor Nicholas Dirks, and three campus police officials as defendants.

Dianne Klein, a spokeswoman for the University of California, sent a statement in response to the suit:

“The University of California welcomes speakers of all political viewpoints and is committed to providing a forum to enable Ann Coulter to speak on the Berkeley campus.

“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. 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.

“UC Berkeley has been 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.”

The College Republicans did not immediately respond to a request for comment about the lawsuit Monday.

“It used to be that universities were the beacon of intellectual thought and debate,” Cliff Maloney Jr., president of Young Americans for Liberty, wrote in an email Monday. “It is a shame that administrative agendas and regulations have stifled open and honest discourse.

“… All speech, whether popular or not, must be protected and we encourage students to challenge their public universities by demanding constitutional policies and practices.”


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Read the complaint here:

 

Staff writer William Wan contributed to this report.