The University of California Berkeley on Thursday reversed its decision to cancel an April 27 speech on immigration by conservative commentator Ann Coulter, offering her a new speaking date the following week. On Friday, Coulter refused the change, saying she would speak on the original date regardless of the university's position.
Then, on Monday, the Berkeley College Republicans, the group that organized the event, filed a lawsuit alongside the Young America Foundation to force the school to allow Coulter to speak on the planned date. The groups are seeking an injunction against what lawyer Harmeet Dhillon called "an unwritten high profile speaker policy," which she alleges the university uses to restrict and bar conservative speakers more so than liberal ones. Ann Coulter is not a plaintiff in the suit.
At a press conference, Dhillon, a Republican national committeewoman who led GOP convention delegates in a Sikh prayer in 2016, criticized both the university and Berkeley police response to recent protest violence. She said that the police were "shrinking violets" during violent confrontations and that the university's arguments for moving the Coulter event were "amateurish when it comes to First Amendment law."
Dhillon is no stranger to university controversy herself: As the editor-in-chief of the Dartmouth Review, a conservative student publication at Dartmouth College, she came under fire for publishing a column that compared the school's president to Hitler. The paper eventually issued an apology.
Responding to the litigation Monday, the Berkeley administration wrote in a statement, "The allegation contained in the complaint filed by YAF that Ms. Coulter is being prohibited from speaking because of her conservative views is untrue." The university also pointed out that it had worked with Young America Foundation in the past to bring conservative speakers to campus.
UC Berkeley Chancellor Nicholas Dirks said in a statement last week that the university had reversed its earlier decision to cancel Coulter's speech, despite initial safety concerns that the event could attract the sort of violence that erupted in February around a scheduled speech by former Breitbart writer Milo Yiannopoulos. Dirks stressed in his letter that he wanted to maintain commitment to the First Amendment and to safety.
Since then, Berkeley has become a hotbed for violent protests from both the left and the right, including a rally earlier this month that broke out into open brawls and resulted in more than 20 arrests. Berkeley police had informed the university's administration that the same protesters involved in that incident were planning to target the Coulter event, prompting school officials to initially cancel it and say they would reschedule for September.
University officials had also complained that they were not informed ahead of time about the Coulter speech by the Berkeley College Republicans, and only learned about it through media reports.
In response to the cancellation, Coulter tweeted that she would give a speech on April 27, the original planned date, on Berkeley's campus anyway. The university said her decision to defy the cancellation was "of grave concern" because of the expectation that violent groups would converge on an unprotected location.
After the university reversed its decision, and offered to reschedule the speech for May 2, Coulter said she would not accept the proposed date because it takes place during the study week, when there are no classes and presumably fewer students interested in going to events.
In a letter to the school Friday, Dhillon's law firm wrote that the Berkeley College Republicans had "meticulously followed University protocol in arranging for Ms. Coulter’s planned, on-campus speaking event," contradicting the administration's position that it had discovered the invitation through local newspaper reports.
The letter also claimed that it was unreasonable for the university to expect Coulter to conclude her speech by 3:30 p.m. — a condition set by the school — noting that former Bill Clinton advisor and White House Deputy Chief of Staff Maria Echaveste, spoke in the evening. The law firm also argued that the restrictions placed on Coulter's event would "eviscerate student access," and called the threat of violent protests "a heckler's veto."
In response to the law firm's letter, the university wrote that it had discontinued planning for the May 2nd event in light of Coulter's rejection. The school's response also said that Dhillon's letter contained "a number of factual errors" related to the planning of the event.
"This semester, UC Berkeley has dedicated more resources...to facilitating [Berkeley College Republicans] expressive activities than have been devoted to any other student group in recent memory," the university wrote.
Responding to Coulter's criticism that the university was violating her right to free speech, the administration added that it had not prohibited Coulter from speaking, and was still open to working with her to find a date where "security can be maximized."
Pieter Sittler, a member of the Berkeley College Republicans, told BuzzFeed News Friday he was still unsure about the future of the event. "Not enough time was given to the university to plan the event," he said. "This has all escalated too quickly. It's not reasonable to request special treatment as it relates to [our group] and the Ann Coulter event."
Blake Montgomery is a reporter for BuzzFeed News and is based in San Francisco.
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