ACLU, Speakers Distance Themselves From UC Berkeley's Free Speech Week - NBC Bay Area
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ACLU, Speakers Distance Themselves From UC Berkeley's Free Speech Week

Berkeley Patriot has accused university officials of 'de facto viewpoint discrimination' and is asking the Justice Department to investigate their complaints

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    The Berkeley Patriot has accused UC Berkeley of engaging in "de facto viewpoint discrimination" by allegedly stymying the viewpoints of conservatives on campus. The student group is asking the U.S. Department of Justice to open an investigation into the matter. Jodi Hernandez reports. (Published Wednesday, Sept. 20, 2017)

    With less than a week to go before kickoff, uncertainty is still looming over UC Berkeley's student-planned Free Speech Week. 

    A rash of alleged speakers released statements this week denying involvement in the four-day conservative extravaganza, organized by right-wing student group Berkeley Patriot. 

    Perhaps the strongest rebuttal came Tuesday, courtesy of the Northern California chapter of the ACLU, which was rumored to be helping the student group wage a legal battle against the university. 

    "Make no mistake — the views expressed by Steve Bannon, Ann Coulter and Milo Yiannopoulos are about bigotry and racism," the regional branch of the ACLU said in a statement. "While the Constitution protects the expression of those views, let’s be clear that this event is about spreading hate and intolerance, not free speech." 

    The rumors started last week after a spokesperson for Berkeley Patriot suggested in an interview with KQED that the ACLU was "ready to go to court" to defend the group.

    Pranav Jandhyala, the student representative who initially made the remark, told NBC Bay Area that it was a “misunderstanding.” He said he was told the ACLU would be helping out by Yiannopoulos, and that he hadn’t heard it first hand. 

    A lineup of speakers sent to news organizations last week included former White House chief strategist Bannon, commentator Coulter and former Breitbart editor Yiannopoulos, with only Yiannopoulos confirmed. Another list included Erik Prince, the founder of Blackwater, and InfoWars radio show host Mike Cernovich.

    Several lists are currently circulating, many containing contradictory information. One released on Wednesday from UC Berkeley's press office confirms only a handful of speakers and refers to others only as "unconfirmed speaker." 

    The events are supposed to take place from Sept. 24 to Sept. 27, with each day revolving around a theme. For example, "Feminism Awareness Day" on Sunday is supposed to feature Yiannopoulos, who once equated the women’s rights movement with "cancer." 

    Berkeley Patriot missed a Friday deadline to sign a contract and submit a $60,000 payment to UC Berkeley so the events will now take place outdoors, if at all.

    "We'd like to continue working together and cooperating," said Berkeley Patriot member, Mike Wright, who said the group wants to help "the university demonstrate they are the home of free speech."

    Members of the student group, however, also failed to confirm their invitee list, apparently blind-sighting people who appeared on it. 

    Dan Mogulof, a spokesperson for UC Berkeley, said he has fielded calls from speakers who say they had no idea how they were put on the roster.

    Following the loss of venue, it appears Coulter and Bannon — media heavyweights who arguably attracted the most attention — have also backed out, according to reports. A list sent out by UC Berkeley's press office lists them as "unconfirmed."

    Other speakers who have denied involvement include author Michael Malice, former Google employee James Damore, author Heather MacDonald, and libertarian speaker Charles Murray. The list is growing murkier by the day, as additional speakers email news outlets and the school to say they will not be there.

    Jandhyala told NBC Bay Area that the group never reached out to all of the speakers directly, crediting Yiannopoulos’ team with creating the widely-circulated roster. The spokesperson said the project was a "big undertaking" that has become replete with "logistical falsities." 

    "Milo had been communicating with those specific speakers and I’m not sure what happened there," the student said. "We ourselves should have made sure to have been in constant contact with all the potential speakers to avoid this." 

    He continued: "I also know that some speakers started to get nervous about violence because of the venue issue and started dropping out." 

    The Berkeley Patriot has accused UC Berkeley of engaging in "de facto viewpoint discrimination" by allegedly stymying the viewpoints of conservatives on campus.

    The group's lawyer Marguerite Melo said, "As we get close (to Free Speech Week), it's clear the university is putting more and more requirements" on the event. UC Berkeley officials are getting in the way of Berkeley Patriot members and "doing everything they can to suppress their ability to exercise their rights," she said.

    Through the Law Offices of Melo and Sarsfield LLP, Berkeley Patriot has elevated its objections to the U.S. Department of Justice and is pushing for an investigation into the matter.

    "The students of the Berkeley Patriot believe that they have been subjected to a pattern and practice of suppression of their First Amendment rights, specifically Freedom of Speech, Freedom of Association, and their Fourteen Amendment right to Equal Protection," Melo wrote in a complaint addressed to the Justice Department.

    In a statement issued Wednesday, however, Mogulof said UC Berkeley remains "deeply committed to freedom of speech" and has devoted "extraordinary security and financial resources" to the group, regardless of political leanings.

    The university has bent over backwards to work with Berkeley Patriot and will continue to do so, Mogulof said.

    "We're going to be spending hundreds of thousands of dollars to support this student group and the speakers coming to campus," he said, "and at this point we all need to work together so next week works well."

    Read Berkeley Patriot's entire complaint below:

    NBC Bay Area's Jodi Hernandez contributed to this report.

    Contact Gillian Edevane through email at gillian.edevane@nbcuni.com. You can also provide feedback by texting or calling her at 669-263-2895, or following her on Twitter at @GillianNBC.