Following Sproul Plaza assault, Trump threatens to exchange free speech commitment for federal funds

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On Feb. 1, 2017, violent protests outside of the Martin Luther King Jr. Student Union building forced controversial conservative speaker Milo Yiannopoulos' event to be canceled.

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During his speech at the 2019 Conservative Political Action Conference on Saturday, President Donald Trump condemned the assault that took place Feb. 19 on Sproul Plaza against Hayden Williams, a man tabling for the conservative organization Turning Point USA.

During his speech, Trump threatened to sign an executive order requiring universities to protect free speech on campuses. In his speech, he also encouraged Williams to sue the campus and the state of California.

“We believe in free speech,” Trump said at the conference. “I will be very soon signing an executive order requiring colleges and universities to support free speech if they want federal research dollars.”

In a campus statement released Saturday regarding the assault, campus spokesperson Dan Mogulof said that neither the assailant, Zachary Greenberg, nor Williams are affiliated with the campus. Mogulof added that critics “stated without substantiation” that the delay leading up to Greenberg’s arrest was due to the political beliefs of the campus administration.

University of California Office of the President said in a statement Monday that the UC has policies and procedures in place to protect the free speech of anyone protesting or speaking on campus. UC President Janet Napolitano said in the statement that Trump’s proposed mandate is unnecessary, as the tradition of protecting free expression at the UC is “alive and thriving.”

In the statement, UCOP emphasized the traditions of free speech at the UC, highlighting the free speech movement that occurred in the 1960s and citing the numerous conservative speakers that have given speeches at campuses throughout the UC system.

“We readily admit that this university … is unable to prevent a lone bad actor who was neither employee or student from engaging in reprehensible behavior on a campus spanning 1,200 acres and a population of 50,000 people,” Mogulof said in the Saturday statement. “Our commitment to freedom of speech and belief is unwavering.”

Berkeley Law Dean Erwin Chemerinsky said in an email that he believes the power to put conditions on federal funding is a power that is reserved for Congress, not the president. He added, however, that it will not be certain what the specific terms of the executive order will be until it is released.

ASUC External Affairs Vice President Nuha Khalfay said in an email that removing federal funds from universities would set a dangerous precedent, adding that the campus would have to reevaluate funding should the executive order go into effect.

“I think the University has and continues to do what is necessary to comply with the first amendment,” Khalfay said in the email. “There should be no reason the university or us as students are punished.”

Contact Leon Chen at [email protected] and follow him on Twitter at @leonwchen.