UC-Berkeley faces lawsuit over violent rioting at free-speech event

Four people have filed suit against the University of California, Berkeley after allegedly being assaulted last year in riots that led to the cancellation of an appearance by a conservative speaker -- raising the possibility more schools around the country could be held accountable for their handling of free speech-related protests.  

The lawsuit, filed in a federal court in Oakland late last week, asserts the school – along with the city of Berkeley – failed to protect the plaintiffs when they were beaten and pepper-sprayed during the rioting that led to the cancellation of an event featured Milo Yiannopoulos, who is known for his controversial and provocative political views.

“The school’s inaction was motivated by the fact that Yiannopoulos and his supporters have opposing viewpoints to the majority of the school’s students and administration,” the complaint states. “Furthermore, given the current political climate in the United States, the City and UC Berkeley Defendants, and each of them, should have foreseen that the protest of a controversial political figure such as Yiannopoulos could likely turn violent.”

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Last February, an estimated 150 black-clad leftist protesters rampaged through Berkeley’s campus, where they caused $100,000 worth of damage, beat some students, and led to the university cancelling the Yiannopoulos appearance. The melee spilled onto the streets of Berkeley, and forced university police and other officers to shut down the campus for several hours.

Three of the plaintiffs -- John Jennings, Katrina Redelsheimer and Trever Hatch -- say they were assaulted when trying to attend the Yiannopoulos event, while the fourth -- Donald Fletcher -- claims he was injured after leaving a local bar and entering the protest.

According to the lawsuit, Jennings and Redelsheimer were attacked on UC-Berkeley’s Sproul Plaza by protesters – including two then-employees of UC-Berkeley and UC-Davis -- wielding sticks and pepper spray. The suit says the two suffered concussions, broken or bruised ribs, burns and cuts.

Hatch was also purportedly attacked on Sproul Plaza, where protestors knocked off his “Make America Great Again” cap and shot pepper spray into his eyes. Fletcher spent the night in a local hospital, and claims he suffered psychologically after allegedly being beaten unconscious, and kicked to ground.

Protestors against a scheduled speaking appearance by polarizing Breitbart News editor Milo Yiannopoulos march on the University of California at Berkeley campus Wednesday, Feb. 1, 2017, in Berkeley, Calif. The event was canceled out of safety concerns after protesters hurled smoke bombs, broke windows and started a bonfire. (AP Photo/Ben Margot)

Students protest the scheduled appearance of Milo Yiannopoulos.  (Copyright 2017 The Associated Press. All rights reserved.)

UC-Berkeley spokesman Dan Mogulof told Fox News on Tuesday the university has not been served with the lawsuit yet so could not comment.

“As of now, our attorneys have not even seen the lawsuit, so we don’t even know what to comment on,” Mogulof said.

Legal experts say the Berkeley lawsuit could be just the tip of the iceberg as the country sees a rise in violent protests on college campuses.

“I can see this popping up more and more,” Roy Gutterman, the director of Tully Center for Free Speech at Syracuse University, told Fox News. “It would be reasonable to see similar suits popping up with the events in Charlottesville."

Members of white nationalists clash a group of counter-protesters in Charlottesville, Virginia, U.S., August 12, 2017.   REUTERS/Joshua Roberts - RTS1BICB

Left-wing protesters clash with conservatives over the scheduled appearance of Milo Yiannopoulos.  (The Associated Press)

Last August, a rally in opposition to the removal of a statute of Confederate Gen. Robert E. Lee on the campus of the University of Virginia turned violent as white supremacists and neo-Nazis clashed with counterprotestors. Heather Heyer, 32, was killed when James Alex Fields Jr. drove a 2010 Dodge Challenger into a crowd on a pedestrian mall.

Gutterman predicted the success of any future lawsuit depends on the motives of the plaintiffs, and how the court rules.

“If this is a way to keep universities responsible then the plaintiffs will succeed,” he said. “But if the lawsuits use civil liability to exert political revenge, that is a different story.”

Gutterman added: “In the end the system will work its way out.”