The Justice Department sided in court Thursday with two conservative student groups in a high-profile case involving conservatives Ann Coulter and David Horowitz and free speech policies at the University of California, Berkeley.
The conservative groups have challenged what they describe as “discriminatory” free speech policies at the university, and the Justice Department move ratcheted up the Trump administration’s support on an issue that has rattled the higher education community.
“The United States has a significant interest in the vigilant protection of constitutional freedoms in institutions of higher learning,” the brief said. “As the Supreme Court has noted, ‘teachers and students must always remain free to inquire, to study and to evaluate, to gain new maturity and understanding; otherwise our civilization will stagnate and die.'"
Conservative organizations have accused the university of “discriminatory imposition of curfew and venue restrictions” that ultimately resulted in the cancellations of events in April by Horowitz and Coulter. The university later reversed its decision about Coulter appearing, but she opted not to come. Coulter told The New York Times it was because she had lost the backing of conservative groups that had initially sponsored her appearance.
The complaint was filed in federal court in April by Berkeley College Republicans, a university student group, and Young America’s Foundation, which provides financial backing to conservative student groups.
Thursday's brief, signed by Attorney General Jeff Sessions, encouraged the court to not dismiss the suit, which the university has asked it to do. The administration also accused the university of adopting a “double standard” toward campus speech by applying a restrictive set of rules to the Berkeley College Republicans while “applying a permissive set of rules to other campus groups.”
In response to the administration’s action, Berkeley issued a statement calling the suit’s allegations “unfounded” and said it will “vigorously” defend itself.
“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,” the statement said.
Janet Napolitano, the University of California president and former Homeland Security secretary in the Obama administration, has said nearly $1.4 million was spent last year on additional costs for speaking events at Berkeley — a large chunk of it to prepare for a “free speech week” planned by Milo Yiannopoulos and a conservative campus group in September that largely fizzled.
Reminiscent of the 1960s, Berkeley has been a focal point of free speech activity in the last year, as colleges and universities around the country grapple with both white nationalists and left-wing provocateurs taking to their campuses. Several large public universities have faced lawsuits after saying they won’t allow white nationalist Richard Spencer to appear because they say they can’t ensure student safety.
The administration has sided with conservative groups in some cases.
In February, after Berkeley canceled a speech by Yiannopoulos, then an editor at Breitbart News, hours before he was scheduled to speak, demonstrators set fires, threw rocks and smashed windows. In response, President Donald Trump tweeted: “If U.C. Berkeley does not allow free speech and practices violence on innocent people with a different point of view - NO FEDERAL FUNDS?”
Education Secretary Betsy DeVos, too, has encouraged free speech protections on campuses. She has said that college campuses are indoctrinating students, rather than exposing them to different viewpoints.
“They say that if you voted for Donald Trump, you’re a threat to the university community,” she said. “But the real threat is silencing the First Amendment rights of people with whom you disagree.”
The Trump administration has backed a lawsuit by a student at Los Angeles Pierce College who has challenged the constitutionality of a “free speech” zone on his community college’s campus. It also sided with a student who claimed that Georgia Gwinnett College unconstitutionally curbed his freedom to share his Christian beliefs on campus.
Also on Thursday, Rachel Brand, an associate U.S. attorney general, wrote in an opinion piece for Fox News that the Justice Department “is not standing on the sidelines while public universities violate students’ constitutional rights — we are backing free speech lawsuits against universities that violate the First Amendment.”