Seyfarth Synopsis: UC Berkeley and the DOJ resolve an 8-year investigation with a comprehensive Consent Decree that requires UC Berkeley to make virtually all the content on its online platforms accessible to people with disabilities within three years and adopt comprehensive policies and procedures to ensure accessible online content.

After eight years, the U.S. Department of Justice (DOJ) finally concluded its investigation into UC Berkley’s online content-related accessibility policies and practices with a 16-page Consent Decree that is awaiting approval by the federal court in the Northern District of California. The investigation started in 2014 when the National Association of the Deaf (NAD) complained to the DOJ that free online courses, conferences, lectures, performances and other programming in audio or video formats offered by UC Berkeley did not have closed captioning. NAD alleged that the failure to provide closed captioning violated Title II of the ADA which requires state entities to provide equal access to their services, programs, and activities.

The DOJ’s investigation expanded beyond access for people with hearing-related disabilities. The Consent Decree reflects this scope by requiring access to UC Berkley’s online content for people with all types of disabilities. Although the Consent Decree is based on UC Berkeley’s obligations under Title II the ADA, it nonetheless provides a useful framework for private universities seeking to ensure their own website accessibility policies and procedures comply with Title III of the ADA. We note, however, that a good compliance program does not have to be exactly like the one outlined in the UC Berkeley Consent Decree.

There is a lot to unpack in this Consent Decree, but here are some of the most significant takeaways:

  1. UC Berkeley must report to DOJ on the state of its compliance with the Consent Decree every six months during the Consent Decree’s 42-month long term.
  2. The Consent Decree covers the activities of the “Berkeley Entities”, defined as “the central administration of UC Berkeley and any UC Berkeley school, college, department, program, or academic unit.” The Consent Decree specifically excludes individual students and student groups from coverage.
  3. The UC Berkeley platforms covered by the Consent Decree are: (a) UC Berkeley’s Massive Online Open Course (“MOOC”) platform referred to as UC BerkeleyX; (b) http://www.berkeley.edu/ (and any subdomain of www.berkeley.edu that may be accessed by the general public and that is controlled by a Berkeley Entity); (c) any podcast channel or account controlled by a Berkeley Entity that is hosted on a third-party platform (e.g. Apple Podcasts and Spotify); and (d) any other audio or video channel or account controlled by a Berkeley Entity that is hosted on a third-party platform (e.g. YouTube).
  4. UC BerkeleyX Platform. Within nine (9) months of the date the Court approves the Consent Decree, UC Berkeley must ensure that all online content, including audio and video content, on this platform conforms to WCAG 2.0, Level AA.
  5. Main Website. Within eighteen (18) months of the date the Court approves the Consent Decree, UC Berkeley must ensure that all content on http://www.berkeley.edu/ and subdomains conforms to WCAG 2.0, Level AA, except for audio and video content which is subject to a different timeline.
  6. New Audio and Video Content. Within nine (9) months of the date the Court approves the Consent Decree, UC Berkeley will ensure that all audio and video content on the following platforms created or made publicly available after the date the Court approves the Consent Decree conforms to WCAG 2.0 Level AA: http://www.berkeley.edu/ and subdomains, any podcast channel or account controlled by a Berkeley Entity that is hosted on a third-party platform (e.g. Apple Podcasts and Spotify), and any other audio or video channel or account controlled by a Berkeley Entity that is hosted on a third-party platform, such as YouTube.
  7. Existing Audio and Video Content: Within thirty-six (36) months of the date the Court approves the Consent Decree, UC Berkeley will ensure that:
    1. all audio and video Content on http://www.berkeley.edu/ and subdomains that was made publicly available prior to the Effective Date conforms to WCAG 2.0, Level AA;
    2. all audio and video content on UC Berkeley’s podcast platforms (e.g. Apple Podcasts, Spotify) that was made publicly available prior to the Effective Date conforms to WCAG 2.0, Level AA; and
    3. all other audio and video content on any other audio or video channel or account controlled by a Berkeley Entity that is hosted on a third-party platform (e.g. YouTube) that either (1) was created or made publicly available within the two (2) years preceding the Effective Date; or (2) has at least 750 views as of the effective date, conforms to WCAG 2.0, Level AA.

The Consent Decree also requires UC Berkeley to adopt very detailed web accessibility procedures, appoint a web accessibility coordinator, create a very specific process and notice to the public for receiving and promptly responding to feedback and requests from users concerning web accessibility, and provide website accessibility training to individuals whose duties include uploading and managing online content on a UC Berkeley platform on behalf of a Berkeley Entity. Furthermore, the Consent Decree requires UC Berkeley to not only continue its own internal accessibility testing of its online content, but also hire an external auditor to test the various covered platforms 9, 21, and 33 months into the Consent Decree.

There is nothing particularly surprising about these comprehensive terms, other than the fact that the DOJ only required conformance with WCAG 2.0 AA, as opposed to the more demanding WCAG 2.1 AA. DOJ has required compliance with WCAG 2.1 AA in recent website accessibility agreements, even though DOJ itself is only required by law to comply with WCAG 2.0 AA for its own online content. The longer timeline to bring existing audio and video content into compliance with accessibility standards is also noteworthy. DOJ apparently recognized that requiring the addition of closed captioning and audio description to the many thousands of existing videos and audio files on UC Berkeley’s platforms could be cost-prohibitive and may result in their permanent removal.

The Consent Decree is an example of the Biden’s Administration’s commitment to website accessibility enforcement, even if it seems to be in no hurry to issue regulations on this topic.