Back in December 2017, Young Americans for Liberty at UC Berkeley, an unrecognized student organization, filed a lawsuit against school administrators who failed to recognize the organization. In an amended complaint, filed in March of this year, the organization and one of its officers alleged that Berkeley would not recognize the YAL chapter as a “registered student organization” because Berkeley contended that the organization was “too similar to the Cal Libertarians,” another student organization. As a result of its unrecognized status, the chapter was not able to receive funding from the “Berkeley Campus Fee.” Last week, Alliance Defending Freedom, which is representing the organization and Kakish, announced that the parties had settled the lawsuit and that Berkeley had agreed to modify its policies as part of the settlement.
As part of the student organization recognition process, the YAL chapter had to submit a “New RSO Interest Form” to Berkeley’s Leadership, Engagement, Advising, & Development Center, which requires submitting a “Statement of Uniqueness.” According to the lawsuit, Berkeley uses the Statement of Uniqueness to determine whether a proposed group is too similar to an existing group. The organization and Kakish alleged that Berkeley’s LEAD Center did not maintain any objective viewpoint- or content-neutral criteria when deciding which student organizations to recognize. In their lawsuit, the organization and Kakish alleged that the lack of criteria violated their First Amendment rights by granting administrators unbridled discretion when approving new student organizations. In addition, they also claimed that Berkeley violated their associational rights by denying recognition because of their perceived similarity with another group. Finally, they alleged that Berkeley violated their Fourteenth Amendment right to equal protection by treating the plaintiffs differently than other students.
Berkeley moved to dismiss the lawsuit, and argued that the organization and Kakish were not harmed by its policies. As an initial matter, Berkeley explained that the group had been recognized in 2012. However, the group’s recognition lapsed during the 2014-2015 academic year, and that the re-recognition process was governed by a different set of policies than those challenged in the lawsuit. The chapter was recognized in January of this year.
However, the lawsuit settled before the court could rule on Berkley’s motion. In addition to paying the YAL chapter and ADF $8,250, Berkeley agreed to modify its policies to ensure that proposed student groups’ recognitions would not be denied or delayed based on their Statement of Uniqueness.
This settlement is good news for Berkeley students who are interested in forming new student organizations. Berkeley students now know that they can form a recognized student organization even if their interests are similar to an existing organization. On a broader level, administrators should take care to note that the perceived duplication of organizational purpose is not a sufficient basis on which to deny the recognition of a student organization.