Trump hints at cutting federal funds to UC Berkeley after violent protests over Milo Yiannopoulos

A speech by conservative firebrand Milo Yiannopoulos was canceled at UC Berkeley on Wednesday amid violent protests that prompted President Trump to suggest cutting federal funding to the university.

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

Update: UC Berkeley — home of the free speech movement — finds itself under fire from left, right and Trump »

It’s unclear whether Trump was actually threatening to cut funding or making some kind of rhetorical point. The larger UC system, for which Berkeley is the flagship campus, receives billions of dollars from the federal government to fund a variety of programs, notably research, student aid and healthcare programs.

The university receives more than $8.5 billion in federal dollars for education, research and healthcare — a significant chunk of the system’s $25-billion budget. Federal funds are UC’s single largest source of research dollars, amounting to more than $3 billion.

Yiannopoulos’ talks, and attempts to talk, at other campuses, including UC Davis, have generated protests and anger from students and faculty, but top UC officials have generally said they believe he has a right to speak.

Dan Mogulof, a UC Berkeley spokesman, said campus officials went to “extraordinary lengths” over weeks of planning to help the Berkeley College Republicans prepare for the event. 

Dozens of police officers were brought in from nine of the University of California's 10 campuses to assist, he said. But it was not enough to prevent what Mogulof said was an “unprecedented” assault on campus.

In a statement posted to their website Thursday, the Berkeley College Republicans thanked campus police and university officials for “doing all they could to ensure the safety of everyone involved.”

“Last night, the Berkeley College Republicans’ constitutional right to free speech was silenced by criminals and thugs seeking to cancel Milo Yiannopoulos’ tour,” the statement read. “Their success is a defeat for civilized society and the free exchange of ideas on college campuses across America.”

University officials called off the Berkeley event about two hours before Yiannopoulos was to speak at the student union, where more than 1,500 people had gathered outside. 

A number of individuals wearing black and using paramilitary tactics had “essentially invaded the campus,” Mogulof said. They threw commercial-grade fireworks at police, started fires and threw barricades at the windows, he said.

“We thoroughly condemn the violence and lawless behavior, and we deeply regret that the actions of a few trampled on the 1st Amendment rights of others,” Mogulof said.

On Thursday, UC Berkeley Police Chief Margo Bennett blamed the problems on so-called black bloc protesters who marched onto campus in military fashion, brandishing clubs, high-grade fireworks, baseball bats and homemade shields.

“We had a controlled environment up until the moment when the black bloc arrived,” Bennett said. 

Black bloc protesters, who dress in all black and keep their faces covered with bandannas, have become a fixture of Bay Area demonstrations in the past decade, particularly in Oakland. They tend to attach themselves to peaceful protests before breaking out to start shattering windows and vandalizing property. 

Bennett said there might need to be some rethinking about allowing controversial appearances to take place at night. She praised officers’ handling of Wednesday night’s protests.

“We have to do exactly what we did last night: to show tremendous restraint,” she said.

Yiannopoulos, 32, writes for Breitbart News — a popular website among the far right — and he is an avowed supporter of President Trump. He’s also a flamboyant provocateur who has been denounced for propagating racism, misogyny and anti-Islam views, but he styles himself a champion of free speech.

This summer, he gained notoriety for encouraging a barrage of harassment against “Ghostbusters” actress Leslie Jones, which prompted Twitter to ban him from the social media platform.

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Controversy, unrest and, occasionally, violence have followed his appearances on a speaking tour at colleges across the U.S., on which Berkeley was to be the last stop. Last month, a man was shot outside a University of Washington hall where Yiannopoulos was scheduled to speak.

In an interview with CNN last month, Yiannopoulos spoke about visiting college campuses. 

“People are tired of being told how to live, how to speak, what language they can use,” Yiannopoulos said. “The strength of feeling in my crowds, the enthusiasm for me from the audiences is the same — the same instinct, the same sort of motivating force (that) put Trump in the White House.”

Wednesday’s decision by Berkeley officials is the second time in two weeks that rowdy protests have forced the cancellation of one of his lectures. UC Davis also canceled one of his speeches last month.

On Thursday, Rep. Barbara Lee (D-Oakland) issued a statement expressing her disappointment over Wednesday night’s violence, but also criticizing Trump’s tweet.

“President Donald Trump cannot bully our university into silence,” Lee’s statement read. “Simply put, President Trump’s empty threat to cut funding from UC Berkeley is an abuse of power.”

Terry Hartle, vice president of the American Council on Education, said there were instances in which federal funding to universities could be legally halted. They included violating Title IX, a federal law that prohibits sex discrimination; barring military recruiters from campus; and fraud. However, Hartle said Trump cannot cut funding because of alleged 1st Amendment violations. 

“There is no current law allowing funding to be stopped for alleged unwillingness to hear another’s point of view,” said Hartle, whose organization represents 1,600 universities and colleges. 

“Congress would have to give the president legal authority to do it, but it would be problematic.”

The Foundation for Individual Rights in Education, a Philadelphia-based group that promotes free speech and due process rights at colleges and universities, stated that there was no evidence that Berkeley as an institution had made any effort to silence Yiannopoulos. 

“Those who engage in violent and/or destructive protests are ultimately responsible for their unlawful behavior and may be subject to arrest and prosecution by law enforcement,” the group said in a statement. “To punish an educational institution for the criminal behavior of those not under its control and in contravention of its policies, whether through the loss of federal funds or through any other means, would be deeply inappropriate and most likely unlawful.”

At Berkeley on Wednesday night, police clashed with protesters, and much of the university was placed on lockdown. Campus police repeatedly ordered protesters to leave the area, threatening the crowd with arrest. Most refused to leave.

At one point, some toppled a generator that was powering a floodlight, and the machinery caught fire in the plaza outside the student union. The flames made for dramatic images from TV news helicopters.

Campus police reported no major injuries and about a half dozen minor injuries, the university said in a statement.

On his Facebook page, Yiannopoulos said that “violent left-wing protesters” had broken into a building’s ground floor, ripped down barricades and thrown rocks.

“My team and I are safe,” Yiannopoulous said.

In characteristic fashion, he pointed to the mayhem on campus to highlight his agenda: “One thing we do know for sure: the Left is absolutely terrified of free speech and will do literally anything to shut it down.”

During an appearance on “Fox and Friends” on Thursday, Kellyanne Conway, a Trump advisor, also touched on the campus protest. 

“I don’t even know if they know what they’re protesting,” Conway said. “Is it the free speech? Having somebody maybe on your campus who has a dissenting point of view or wants to present an alternative point of view?”

The protesters seemed as much drawn by Yiannopoulos’ platform as by the broader ascendance of far-right politics. 

De’andre Bitter, 72, brought a large sign with LED strips that brightly said “No!”

A retired ship worker originally from Fresno, he stood near the rear of those assembled and said he brought the sign to a slew of recent protests, including a recent women’s march, the airport demonstrations over Trump’s travel restrictions and a protest at UC Davis.

“We go anywhere people are opposing Trump and his fascist regime,” Bitter said. He viewed the vast majority of protesters as peaceful and attributed the violence to a handful of anarchists, who wore mostly black apparel.

Others handed out yellow leaflets, calling Yiannopoulos “a tool of Trump’s possessive fascist government.”

“He has no right to speak at Cal or anywhere else,” the leaflet declared.

By 8 p.m., the crowd had dwindled to a few hundred and spilled into the streets, marching down Telegraph Avenue. The group had a carnival-like element, with a five-piece jazz band that came together by serendipity, with tuba, trombone and clarinet players marching in step.

“Some came on purpose. Some came on accident,” said one of the band members, who declined to be identified.

But the levity was eclipsed by bursts of violence. A handful of demonstrators smashed dowels into a bank of ATMs. Photos on social media showed shattered windows at businesses. 

The sprawling group halted traffic at Telegraph and Durant avenues, where one driver plowed a white sedan into the crowd. One of the demonstrators grabbed on to the car for a block, then rolled off uninjured. 

Another motorist was injured by the crowd. Bryan Quintana, 29, who delivers food for an Italian restaurant, was in a car near the assembly when he said he was hit and pepper-sprayed by some of the demonstrators. 

“I was driving really slow. And somebody hit my car and somebody hit my arm, and hit my head,” Quintana said. His eyes were red and his arm was swollen. He was rattled, but other protesters stopped and rushed to pour water on him, to reduce the sting of the pepper spray. He later drove off to deliver an order about a mile away.

On Tuesday, Yiannopoulos spoke at Cal Poly San Luis Obispo, where the university braced for large protests and stationed more than 100 police officers. About 150 protesters arrived and remained peaceful, and there were no reports of arrests, according to the San Luis Obispo Tribune.

In his remarks there, Yiannopoulos extolled Cal Poly for having a student population that was mostly male, railed against abortion and provided instructions on how to apply to his male-only scholarship fund, the “privilege grant,” according to text of his remarks published by Breitbart.

The cancellation of his talk at UC Davis sparked debate about the limits of free speech and hate speech. Davis College Republicans decided it was unsafe to continue the event after a large number of protesters blocked access to the venue, according to a release from the school.

UC Davis interim Chancellor Ralph Hexter said he was “deeply disappointed” by the protests and the cancellation and said he worried that outside groups are using college campuses to trigger conflicts intended for the national stage.

“I get very, very alarmed with folks who don't treat [freedom of speech] for the treasure that it is,” he said two weeks ago.

So far, the UC system has resisted calls to cancel Yiannopoulos’ talks. At noon, just hours before Wednesday’s event, Berkeley administrators issued a statement saying they were committed to tolerance as well as free speech.

In the weeks before Yiannopoulos’ planned Berkeley appearance, administrators received hundreds of letters from faculty, students and others demanding they bar him from speaking.

One letter from a dozen faculty members argued that his talk could be canceled on the grounds that his actions — which they called “harassment, slander, defamation and hate speech” — violated UC Berkeley’s code of conduct.

By Thursday morning, the campus was mostly back to normal, save for the crews covering broken windows with plywood at the student union and a scuffle that allegedly broke out on the southern edge of campus. 

At around 11:45 a.m., Jonathan Sayeh, a 21-year-old political science student, Iranian refugee and member of the Berkeley College Republicans, said he was standing on the corner talking with another group member when two other men approached them. 

Sayeh’s friend was wearing a red Make America Great Again cap, Sayeh said. One of the men punched his friend in the face, Sayeh said, while the other man shoved him. Police arrived by bicycle and on foot and detained the two men as they tried to drive away, Sayeh said.

Sayeh, who was present during Wednesday’s protests, said it’s not easy being a Republican on the Berkeley campus.

“It’s quite concerning, every day, all day,” he said.

The Republican club maintains an information table on Sproul Plaza, as do dozens of other student organizations.

“We’ve had people who tried to spit on us,” he said. “We have people who have thrown punches. We’ve been called Nazis and fascists.”

Sayeh himself is Jewish and came to the U.S. from Iran about three years ago, he said. He was granted refugee status as a victim of religious persecution, he said. 

King reported from Berkeley, Hamilton, Watanabe and Mejia reported from Los Angeles. Times staff writer Hailey Branson-Potts contributed to this report.

matt.hamilton@latimes.com

teresa.watanabe@latimes.com

peter.king@latimes.com

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UPDATES:

2 p.m.: This article was updated with details about an alleged scuffle on campus Thursday. 

12:35 p.m.: This article was updated with comments from Terry Hartle, vice president of the American Council on Education, about federal funding. 

11:40 a.m.: This article was updated with a statement from the Berkeley College Republicans and information about the campus atmosphere Thursday.

10 a.m.: This article was updated with comments from Yiannopoulos in an interview with CNN.

9:15 a.m.: This article was updated with a statement from Barbara Lee and the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education.

8:10 a.m.: This article was updated with comments from a university spokesman.

7:15 a.m.: This article was updated with additional details on UC federal funding.

7 a.m.: This article was updated with UC financial information.

Feb. 2, 6:30 a.m.: This article was updated with a tweet from President Trump.

10:35 p.m.: This article was updated with additional details about the protests.

10:10 p.m.: This article was updated with comments from demonstrators.

7:50 p.m.: This article was updated with details on Yiannopoulos’ speech Tuesday at Cal Poly San Luis Obispo.

7:30 p.m.: This article was updated with additional background on the event and new details about the protests.

7 p.m.: This article was updated with additional background on Yiannopoulos.

6:45 p.m.: This article was updated with information about the cancellation of the event and background on previous speeches by Milo Yiannopoulos at California college campuses.

This article was originally published on Feb. 1 at 4:45 p.m.

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