By Jonathan Stempel
(Reuters) – A federal judge rejected the University of California at Berkeley’s bid to dismiss a lawsuit claiming it discriminated against conservative speakers like Ann Coulter by imposing unreasonable restrictions and fees on their appearances.
In a decision late Wednesday, U.S. District Judge Maxine Chesney in San Francisco said two conservative groups could pursue claims that the school applied its “high-profile speaker” and “major events” policies in a manner that unfairly suppressed conservative speech.
But the judge also said she was “unpersuaded” by claims that the school engaged in intentional viewpoint discrimination, and said the plaintiffs could not seek punitive damages.
The Berkeley College Republicans and the Young America’s Foundation, a Tennessee group, had sued after the university canceled Coulter’s scheduled speech last April 27, citing security concerns.
UC Berkeley is known as the birthplace of the student-led Free Speech Movement of the 1960s. Like other schools, it has tried to welcome different views without jeopardizing safety or its educational mission.
Spokespeople and lawyers for the school did not immediately respond on Thursday to requests for comment. University of California President Janet Napolitano is also a defendant.
The major events policy was adopted in July, and gave school officials discretion to take various steps to ensure security.
While saying the policy was not too vague, Chesney said the plaintiffs may pursue an equal protection claim over a security fee charged for an appearance by conservative commentator Ben Shapiro that was well above a fee at the same venue for Supreme Court Justice Sonia Sotomayor, part of the court’s liberal bloc.
“It is good news that the case is going forward,” Harmeet Dhillon, a lawyer for the plaintiffs, said in a phone interview on Thursday. “The First Amendment is a core constitutional principle, and every government policy that restricts, censors or bars otherwise legal speech is unconstitutional.”
The case is Young America’s Foundation et al v Napolitano et al, U.S. District Court, Northern District of California, No. 17-02255.
(Reporting by Jonathan Stempel in New York; Editing by David Gregorio)