The University of California, Berkeley School of Law appears to have averted yet another free speech controversy on the Bay Area campus by inviting retired Harvard Law School professor Alan Dershowitz to speak this month.

Dershowitz had been scheduled to give a talk about Israel to several Jewish student groups on Oct. 10, but university officials declined to make an on-campus location available, saying the Dershowitz event did not comply with a recently adopted policy requiring organizations to give campus police an eight-week notice for any event expected to draw 200 or more people.

Dershowitz took to cable news on Sept. 28 to accuse Berkeley of violating the First Amendment, and said the pro-Israel topic of his talk was the reason the event was not permitted on campus. He threatened to sue the university if the event did not take place.

Berkeley’s speaker invitation policy does not apply to academic departments such as the law school, and law Dean Erwin Chemerinsky said Monday morning that he extended an invitation to Dershowitz as soon as he learned of the situation.

“I heard from the Jewish Law Students Association that Alan Dershowitz wanted to speak on campus,” Chemerinsky said. “I immediately called him and then sent him an email inviting him. I have known Alan for a long time and think very highly of him. He always is welcome to speak at U.C. Berkeley Law School.”

The details of Dershowitz’s law school talk have yet to be worked out, Chemerinsky said.

Berkeley has become the epicenter of the debate over free speech on college and university campuses during the past year.

The campus erupted in violence in February amid a planned speech by controversial writer Milo Yiannopoulos, who at the time was an editor at the conservative news site Breitbart. That talk was canceled just hours before it was scheduled, after black-clad protestors caused an estimated $100,000 in damage to campus. Subsequent protests marred or canceled planned visits by a number of high-profile conservatives including writer and commentator Ann Coulter and Ben Shapiro, radio talk show host and columnist who founded the conservative news site The Daily Wire. Those protests and the fear of more violence led university leaders to adopt the new speaker invitation policies in August.

But Berkeley’s response to the ongoing protests has drawn the ire of many who say it has gone too far in squelching free speech. U.S. Attorney General Jeff Sessions highlighted Berkeley as an example of universities trampling on the First Amendment during a talk Sept. 26 at Georgetown University Law Center.

“Freedom of thought and speech are under attack,” Sessions said. “It is transforming into an echo chamber of political correctness and homogeneous thought—a shelter for fragile egos.”

Speaking on “Fox & Friends” on Sept. 28, Dershowitz said the universities routinely invite pro-Palestine speakers but balk at those delivering a pro-Israel message.

The prior day, Dershowitz, a political liberal who wrote the 2003 book “The Case for Israel” but who is best known as an adviser to O.J. Simpson’s defense team during his murder trial, spoke about Israel at Columbia University. He was met with protests at Columbia, although they were not violent or disruptive.

“Berkeley is a public university—taxpayers’ money,” he said on “Fox & Friends.” “They are bound by the First Amendment. They can’t impose one rule on pro-Israel speakers and another one and anti-Israel speakers, one rule for conservatives and one rule for liberals.”

Chemerinsky, a high-profile constitutional law scholar who co-authored a new book about free speech on college campuses, has argued that the university should be a marketplace of ideas with a “robust exchange of ideas.” He acknowledged, however, in a Sunday op-ed in the New York Daily News that the security costs associated with controversial speakers is high. Berkeley spent a reported $600,000 on security during Shapiro’s campus visit.

“But the First Amendment and academic freedom require that campuses do all they can to protect the ability of all to speak,” Chemerinsky wrote. “Moreover, the more committed we are to nurturing a culture of free expression, the less there will be a need to recruit hundreds of police just because someone was invited to give a lecture.”

 

Contact Karen Sloan at ksloan@alm.com. On Twitter: @KarenSloanNLJ