The Justice Department has filed a statement of interest siding with two conservative groups who have sued the University of California at Berkeley, alleging administrators created logistical and other hurdles that forced the cancellation or modification of planned events with right-leaning speakers.
In a court filing, Justice Department lawyers said the groups had properly pleaded that Berkeley violated their First Amendment rights, and the government was getting involved in the case because it "has a significant interest in the vigilant protection of constitutional freedoms in institutions of higher learning."
The Justice Department said it took no position on whether those suing would prove their case at trial, but they urged the court not to dismiss the case at this early stage.
Justice Department spokeswoman Sarah Isgur Flores said Thursday on CNN that the department was getting involved in the case because officials want "to protect against universities — the government really, if you're a public university — deciding which speech is favored, which ideas are too controversial to even allow to be heard on a college campus."
Attorney General Jeff Sessions has been outspoken about free speech on college campuses, and in advance of his department's court filing, Associate Attorney General Rachel Brand penned a column for Fox News criticizing the practices at some colleges.
"Free speech is under attack at college campuses across the country," Brand wrote. "The problem is not limited to a few colleges barring radical speakers to avoid a riot. Universities large and small, public and private, are restricting students' and professors' speech or enabling others to silence speech with which they disagree."
The controversy at Berkeley erupted in early 2017, when violent protests and security fears forced the cancellation of events featuring controversial right-wing speakers, including Milo Yiannopoulos, David Horowitz and Ann Coulter. The controversy drew national attention to the college, known for its liberal-leaning student body and its role in the free-speech movement.
In April 2017, two conservative groups — the Young America's Foundation and the Berkeley College Republicans — sued, alleging that administrators had tried to restrict their free speech by creating practical roadblocks to their events.
A judge dismissed their suit but allowed them to file an amended complaint, which they did in November. The groups alleged administrators and police had tried "to restrict and stifle the speech of conservative students whose expression of ideas challenges campus political orthodoxy," by imposing curfew, venue and other restrictions on their events.
"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 Plaintiffs (and the many UC Berkeley students whose public policy viewpoints align with Plaintiffs), simply because that expression may anger or offend students, UC Berkeley administrators, and/or community members who do not share Plaintiffs' viewpoints," the lawsuit alleged.
The groups asked for monetary damages, a judgment declaring their rights had been violated and an injunction barring the college from selectively enforcing policies to interfere with their events. In a statement for this story, Young America's Foundation spokesman Spencer Brown said his group "would welcome the Department of Justice taking an interest in our case. Free speech needs to be protected for all students."
A Berkeley spokesman said in a statement: "The allegations made by the plaintiffs in this lawsuit are unfounded. Berkeley does not discriminate against speakers invited by student organizations based upon viewpoint. 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."
In a court filing, Berkeley asked a judge to dismiss the case, arguing that it "never banned any speech," but rather, "instituted permissible restrictions on when, where, and under what circumstances major speaker events could occur in campus venues to address specific and credible security threats."
"Defendants took reasonable steps to facilitate Plaintiffs' events while balancing the competing concerns for security, the University's limited resources, and its educational mission," lawyers for the college wrote.