Early Wednesday morning, President Trump threatened to withdraw federal funding from UC Berkeley after the university cancelled a speech by right-wing provocateur Milo Yiannopoulos amid violent protests on campus.
Trump reaffirmed his contempt for nuance in a tweet blaming Berkeley for the actions of a group of masked anti-fascist protesters on Tuesday night, who hurled fireworks and bricks at the building where Yiannopoulos was scheduled to speak hours later. Some used police barricades to smash the building’s windows and set fire to gasoline-powered light outside the venue, prompting security forces to deploy tear gas and rubber bullets into the crowd.
Thousands turned out for the demonstration, which was reportedly peaceful until riots broke out around 5 p.m. Most of the vandals were reportedly not students, but affiliates of the “antifa” movement who justified using violence to combat Yiannopoulos’s hateful rhetoric.
UC Berkeley Chancellor Nicholas Dirks had refused demands to cancel Yiannopoulos’s appearance last week, explaining in a letter to the university community that the constitution prohibits Berkeley, a public institution, “from banning expression based on its content or viewpoints, even when those viewpoints are hateful and discriminatory.”
Dirks called Yiannopoulos a “troll” who has been “widely and rightly condemned for engaging in hate speech directed at a wide range of groups and individuals.” The chancellor denounced Yiannopoulos’s tendency to target individuals in his audiences (he mocked a student at the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee last month), but said his “words and deeds do not justify prior restraint on his freedom of expression” and insisted that the university cannot lawfully “censor or prohibit events, or charge differential fees.”
In threatening to withdraw federal funding from Berkeley on grounds that the university “does not allow free speech and practices violence on innocent people with a different point of view,” Trump willfully overlooked the fact that university officials did everything they could to prohibit censorship of Yiannopoulos—who has called Trump his “daddy”--despite many faculty members’ and students’ vehement objections to his appearance on campus. That protesters overwhelmed security reinforcement does not discount the university’s efforts.
“It is troubling to assign collective guilt in the way the president’s tweet seemed to do, suggesting that the university itself had somehow condoned the violence or facilitated it when they had done the opposite,” said Will Creeley, vice president of legal and public advocacy at FIRE (Foundation for Individual Rights in Education). Creeley also noted that “there is no legal provision for President Trump to deny a public or private institution federal funds on account of their treatment of speech.”
Even if Trump tried to get Congress to pass such a law, Creeley said the events at Berkeley Wednesday night would be a weak impetus for that kind of legislative action.
Lee Rowland, Senior Staff Attorney specializing in free speech at ACLU, agreed: “Even if there were some magical ability for the federal government or the president to punish a university for speech—and there absolutely is not under current law—UC Berkeley did everything to make sure the event happened.
“If the university violates first amendment they will certainly get their comeuppance in the form of a constitutional lawsuit,” Rowland continued. “But the federal government has not conditioned federal funding on the speech or viewpoints on schools that receive grants—and rightly so if we value academic freedom and freedom of expression.”
Trump’s attack on Berkeley came a day after his administration reportedly appointed Jerry Falwell Jr., president of Liberty University in Lynchburg, Virginia, to spearhead new presidential task forces reforming the Department of Education. The task forces will focus on “overregulation and micromanagement of higher education,” a Liberty University spokesman told NBC News on Tuesday night.
Trump’s misguided censure of Berkeley for its alleged intolerance of people with different viewpoints seemed particularly ironic in light of the news about Falwell Jr., who was one of the first prominent Christian Evangelicals to support Trump and reportedly pulled an anti-Trump article from Liberty University’s student newspaper last October.
Earlier that month, a spokesman for the group Liberty United Against Trump told The Daily Beast that the presidential candidate’s critics at the university face “intimidation,” and that Falwell “has really thin skin and doesn’t like to be disagreed with.”