Protesters crowd Sproul Plaza on the UC Berkeley campus last fall. Photo by Pax Ahimsa Gethen via Wikimedia Commons

In summary

After months of controversy over far-right speakers on the UC Berkeley campus, the US Department of Justice has weighed in. Attorneys for the department filed a brief Thursday in support of a federal lawsuit by the Berkeley College Republicans and the Young America’s Foundation alleging that the university’s public event policies discriminate against conservatives.

After months of controversy over far-right speakers on the UC Berkeley campus, the US Department of Justice has weighed in. Attorneys for the department filed a brief Thursday in support of a federal lawsuit by the Berkeley College Republicans and the Young America’s Foundation alleging that the university’s public event policies discriminate against conservatives.

The brief cites a “grave concern” that “free speech has come under attack on campuses across the country.” It echoes criticisms of Berkeley made by Attorney General Jeff Sessions in a speech at Georgetown University last fall, in which he charged the university was coddling students and cracking down on speech.

Planned campus appearances by conservative firebrands Milo Yiannopoulos and Ann Coulter sparked protests last year and ultimately were canceled due to security concerns.

The events’ sponsors have pointed out the irony of speakers being shouted down in the birthplace of the Free Speech Movement. But other students critique what they say is a deliberate strategy by conservative groups of booking racist, sexist and homophobic “experts” to provoke students, then crying foul when they are opposed.

UC Berkeley quickly fired back with a statement noting that the suit had already been dismissed by a judge once. (The students submitted an amended complaint, which the university is arguing should be thrown out.) “Berkeley does not discriminate against speakers invited by student organizations based upon viewpoint,” the statement reads. “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 campus will continue to vigorously defend itself against these allegations.”

While the Justice Department did not take a position on whether the right-wing groups would prevail in a trial, it argued that the case should go forward.

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Felicia Mello edits CalMatters' College Journalism Network, a collaboration with student journalists across California to cover higher education from the ground up. Her reporting on affordability, equity...