What's at Stake for Berkeley After Trump Warns University Over Canceled Speech

PHOTO: A portable light unit burns after demonstrations forced the cancellation of a talk by 32-year-old right-wing provocateur Milo Yiannopoulos, Feb. 1, 2017, in Berkeley, Calif.PlaySan Francisco Chronicle/Polaris
WATCH Violent Protests Break Out on the UC Berkeley Campus

President Donald Trump’s apparent warning that the University of California at Berkeley could be at risk of losing federal funds after campus police canceled a talk by a controversial news editor has raised questions about whether the U.S. government may restrict funding to a particular university.

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Terry Hartle, the senior vice president at the American Council on Education, which represents U.S. colleges and universities, said it’s possible but only under “clearly dictated procedures” that relate to “financial fraud or scientific misconduct,” not over violence or alleged infringement of free speech rights.

Breitbart News editor Milo Yiannopoulos was scheduled to speak Wednesday night at the university before police cleared out unruly crowds of people protesting his visit. The university canceled the talk after some of the protesters threw smoke bombs and started a fire.

Yiannopoulos is a vocal Trump backer who has been called a racist and misogynist, among other criticisms.

Trump took offense this morning over the canceled speech. “If U.C. Berkeley does not allow free speech and practices violence on innocent people with a different point of view - NO FEDERAL FUNDS?” he wrote on Twitter.

Berkeley receives a significant amount of federal funding, mostly in two forms, Hartle said.

“The first is student financial assistance in the form of Pell grants and federal loans,” he said. “The second is in the form of federal grants for research and development.”

The latter allows university faculty members and students to work on projects that could benefit agencies, such as the National Institutes of Health, through which the money would be distributed.

According to Berkeley’s 2014–15 annual financial report, the most recent one posted on its website, the university received $417.3 million in federal grants and contracts, plus $39.4 million in Pell grants for students during 2015.

For Trump to follow through on his tweet, however, Congress would have to modify provisions guiding the funding of grant and loan programs to include ramifications for alleged free speech rights violations or campus violence — which would likely face legal challenges, Hartle said.

The president could seek to reduce the government’s funding for the university by submitting a budget to Congress that de-emphasizes grants to universities and student loans and directing his Cabinet to divert funds. But that would affect all schools and students, not just Berkeley.

A larger question, in the aftermath of Trump’s response, has been whether Berkeley deserved such a rebuke from the president. There’s no evidence that the event was canceled in order to suppress Yiannopoulos’ views; university officials cited safety reasons for the cancellation after some protesters broke windows and threw rocks.

“Of paramount importance was the campus’s commitment to ensure the safety and security of those attending the event, the speaker, those who came to engage in lawful protest and members of the public and the Berkeley campus community,” the school said in a statement Wednesday.

It a statement on its Facebook page, the Berkeley College Republicans, which organized the event, thanked police and the “university administration for doing all they could to ensure the safety of everyone involved,” criticizing instead the “criminals and thugs” responsible for the violence.

Before Yiannopoulos’ arrival, as members of the community voiced opposition to his appearance, Berkeley Chancellor Nicholas Dirks wrote a public message in which he reminded the school of the “right to free expression, enshrined in the First Amendment to the U.S. Constitution” and of the campus’s history as a center of free speech.

He sent an additional open letter today, decrying the violence that took place Wednesday night and saying the university went to “extraordinary lengths” to ensure the event could take place in the contentious environment.

“UC Berkeley condemns in the strongest possible terms the actions of individuals who invaded the campus, infiltrated a crowd of peaceful students and used violent tactics to close down the event,” Dirks wrote. “We deeply regret that the violence unleashed by this group undermined the First Amendment rights of the speaker as well as those who came to lawfully assemble and protest his presence.”

He added that it was the University of California Police Department that decided to evacuate Yiannopoulos and cancel the event.