A new settlement between UC Berkeley and conservative groups pertains to campus events like those that drew protests and heavy security in 2017. Photo: Pete Rosos

UC Berkeley and a conservative student group have reached a settlement agreement in a prominent 2017 free-speech case, both parties announced Monday.

Under the agreement, UC Berkeley has changed its campus events policy, explicitly laying out which events require student groups to pay security costs. The university also agreed to pay the Berkeley College Republicans and Young America’s Foundation $70,000 in attorney fees.

The organizations filed the lawsuit in federal court in April 2017, alleging UC Berkeley violated conservative students’ First Amendment rights by placing prohibitive restrictions on when and where events featuring Ann Coulter and David Horowitz could take place. The campus maintained that the restrictions were set in place due to legitimate security concerns — following violent protests that forced the cancellation of Milo Yiannopoulos’ speech earlier that year — not the political views of the speakers, and that the rules did not prevent the groups from holding their events.

The lawsuit emerged during the series of raucous protests and speaking events that trailed the Yiannopoulos melée on campus in 2017. While the public controversy has largely died down, the lawsuit has continued quietly in court. Judge Maxine Chesney dismissed the case in late 2017, but plaintiffs accepted her invitation to file an amended complaint in light of new developments.

Both sides said they considered the settlement a victory. However, they appear to be interpreting the implications of the agreement differently.

UC Berkeley spokesman Dan Mogulof said the “insubstantial cosmetic changes” to the final events policy simply codify what the campus has been doing all along.

“We’ve clarified existing practices,” Mogulof said. “The claims that we had an unconstitutional events policy were thrown out of court.”

According to the new fee schedule, student groups holding events in classrooms and similar venues are not required to pay for security, except in some specific cases like dances. Mogulof said this has been the university’s practice, pointing to several Berkeley College Republicans events last spring that he said were held at no cost to the students.

Troy Worden, president of the Berkeley College Republicans, talks to reporters about the club’s invitation to Ann Coulter and the campus’s response in the spring of 2017. Photo: Natalie Orenstein
Troy Worden, president of the Berkeley College Republicans, talks to reporters about the club’s invitation to Ann Coulter and the campus’s response in the spring of 2017. Photo: Natalie Orenstein

Some venues that are rented out separately, like Zellerbach Hall, set their own security fees that student groups have always been, and are still, responsible for, he said. The Berkeley College Republicans and their sponsors Young America’s Foundation paid $9,000 for security, which the groups said was an unfair amount,  when they hosted Ben Shapiro there in September 2017. UC Berkeley and the University of California paid $600,000 in security costs for anticipated protests outside the event that barely materialized.

If the Shapiro event happened again next year, the students would be responsible for the same or similar cost, Mogulof said.

The new policy also removes language that allowed the university to judge the nature of an event, and thus how much security would cost, based on its “complexity.” That passage was among pieces of the policy that prompted some conservatives to say the university discriminated against right-wing events. Mogulof said UC Berkeley never actually made any decisions based on the “complexity” provision.

Harmeet Dhillon, the lawyer for the plaintiffs, however, said the new policy required in the settlement “completely changes” the university’s approach to campus events. Her clients achieved the outcome they wanted, she said.

“They’re going to charge all student groups zero dollars for security — that is a landmark policy,” she said. “Our clients…and our firm view this settlement as a major victory for the First Amendment rights of all students.”

Dhillon said her understanding of the agreement is that venues like Zellerbach can instate flat security requirements for events held there, but cannot charge amounts that vary based on the nature of the event, like, she said, happened when Shapiro spoke.

Dhillon said the $70,000 that UC Berkeley is obligated to pay her clients indicates the campus’s culpability. She said the amount did not represent “100% of the attorney fees — that is customary in a settlement,” but declined to state how much her clients had paid.

Mogulof said the lawsuit has cost UC Berkeley an estimated $250,000.

“This is the sort of fight that protects something so foundational to the university,” he said. “It was worth all the effort and resources to establish beyond any doubt that the policies are constitutional.”

Mogulof said he is unaware of any events held by the College Republicans this year.

Troy Worden, who was president of the club when the lawsuit was filed, was among the many on the right who celebrated the settlement online Monday.

“Honored to have been a part of this momentous victory for the New Free Seech Movement,” he said on Twitter.

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Natalie Orenstein

Natalie Orenstein reports on housing and homelessness for The Oaklandside. Natalie was a Berkeleyside staff reporter from early 2017 to May 2020. She had previously contributed to the site since 2012,...