California's Hastings law school says free speech bars lawsuit over name change

Students sit in a library of UGent, Ghent University
REUTERS/Francois Lenoir
  • Descendants of namesake Serranus Hastings have sued to stop California Hastings College of Law from rebranding
  • The school says the suit violates free speech protections

(Reuters) - A lawsuit that aims to block the renaming of the University of California Hastings College of Law violates the San Francisco school’s free speech rights, school officials told the state court judge overseeing the case on Wednesday.

Hastings' motion to dismiss the lawsuit is the latest development in a five-year debate over the school’s name, which honors Serranus Hastings, a former California Supreme Court justice. Hastings, who founded the school in 1878, is accused by historians of orchestrating killings of Native Americans in order to remove them from ranch land he purchased in Northern California.

California Governor Gavin Newsom on Sept. 30 signed a bill authorizing the school to be renamed as the University of California College of the Law, San Francisco. The following week, six Hastings descendants and a group of alumni sued, claiming he was not involved in killings and that any name change breaches an agreement California made with Hastings when he gave $100,000 in gold to establish a school named after him.

The law school invoked California’s “anti-SLAPP” law in its filing on Wednesday.

“Plaintiffs’ claims against the College Defendants arise from classic protected activity,” it said, asserting that all of the school’s public actions pertaining to the name change and its interactions with state lawmakers are protected under free speech laws.

Harmeet Dhillon, a lawyer with the Dhillon Law Group who is representing the plaintiffs, said Thursday that her clients will oppose the school’s motion in court and that a hearing is expected in December.

“We’re at the beginning of a multi-stage process here,” Dhillon said.

The law school is represented by a team of lawyers from Gibson, Dunn & Crutcher, headed by partner Theodore Boutrous.

The lawsuit contends that California entered into a contract with Hastings that said he would serve as its inaugural dean, that an heir or representative would always hold a seat on the school’s board of directors, and that it would forever be called the “Hastings College of the Law.”

The motion to dismiss counters that Hastings and California never entered into any contract, and even if they did, the plaintiffs are not parties to it.

“The writing on which they base their claim is a statute, not a contract, and that statute contains nothing like the clear and unmistakable language required for a court to conclude that legislation creates contract rights,” the school said.

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Karen Sloan reports on law firms, law schools, and the business of law. Reach her at