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 policy for handling "major events" and an earlier policy for "high-profile speakers" in a manner that unfairly suppressed conservative speech.
But the judge also said she was "unpersuaded" by claims by the plaintiffs that the school engaged in intentional viewpoint discrimination, and that the major events policy was too vague. She 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.
Janet Napolitano, president of the University of California, was also named as a defendant.
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.
The major events policy was adopted in July, and gave school officials discretion to take various steps to ensure security.
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.
In a statement on Thursday, UC Berkeley said it was pleased with Chesney's "core" ruling upholding the major events policy, and denied having previously had a "secret" policy for high-profile speakers. It also called the roughly $9,000 fee charged for the Shapiro appearance "lawful and appropriate."
Harmeet Dhillon, a lawyer for the plaintiffs, also welcomed the decision.
"It is good news that the case is going forward," Dhillon said in a telephone 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 and Dan Grebler)