Sproul Plaza on Sept. 27, 2017. Much of the political activity on campus takes place here. Photo: Frances Dinkelspiel

UC Berkeley went on the offensive Sunday to dispel the notion that it did not act promptly or in an unbiased way in investigating a campus assault that has been so politicized that President Donald Trump mentioned it in a Saturday speech.

Trump and his allies on the right have been characterizing a Feb. 19 assault by a non-student on another non-student who was handing out conservative political literature as an attack on free speech. Trump cited the case at the Conservative Political Action Conference outside Washington on Saturday and then invited Hayden Williams, the man who was punched in the face on in Sproul Plaza, onto the stage.

Trump then went on to encourage Williams to sue UC Berkeley and California for the assault. He then said he would issue an executive order that would withhold funds from universities unless they agreed “to support free speech.”

“If they want our dollars, and we give it to them by the billions, they’ve got to allow people like Hayden and many other great young people and old people to speak peacefully,” Trump said. “If they don’t it will be very costly.”

UC Berkeley police arrested Zachary Greenberg, 28, on Friday on suspicion of hitting Williams. He and another man had allegedly come upon Williams while he was handing out information for Turning Point USA. The assailant and Williams got into an altercation, which Williams started to film with his phone, according to UC Berkeley police. Greenberg allegedly slapped the phone to the ground, knocked down the table and hit Williams, according to police.

The assault was by “one lone bad actor”

But the altercation to which Trump referred has nothing to do with free speech issues, Dan Mogulof said Sunday while discussing with Berkeleyside the statement published on the university’s press page this weekend. The assault was by “one lone bad actor,” but much of what occurred “has been willfully distorted and inaccurately reported,” according to the statement.

Breitbart News, a conservative news outlet, for example, wrote on Feb. 27: “UC Berkeley, a campus that was once celebrated as the birthplace of the Free Speech Movement of the 1960s, now appears to have become a haven of militant opposition against conservative students and visitors expressing views that fall outside of Leftist Groupthink.”

Others have complained that the mainstream media ignored the assault, revealing its bias. However, the Daily Cal reported the incident the day after it happened. Berkeleyside first reported on the issue on Feb. 22 after conservatives had started to frame the issue as one of free speech.

The UC Berkeley statement “reaffirming the campus’s commitment to free speech,” put out a timeline of events, including police notices about the assault, an administration statement condemning “violence and harassment of any sort” and Chancellor Carol Christ’s statement of concern about the altercation. She said that “sort of behavior is intolerable and has no place here. Our commitment to freedom of expression and belief is unwavering.”

Regardless of the university’s immediate move to investigate and condemn the assault, many on the right gave their own interpretation of the facts and found the university wanting. This is incorrect, according to the statement:

“In certain quarters of the media world, theatrical outrage was expressed regarding the university’s supposed failure to prevent the criminal act in question, Mogulof wrote in the statement. “We readily admit that this university—like every single town, city, county, and state in this country—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.” We don’t see a way to do that, but that doesn’t mean our police force and the administration don’t awaken every morning trying their best to deter criminal behavior and keep our campus safe. That objective is supported by imposing appropriate consequences when rules and laws are violated and we have done everything in our power to make sure that happens in this instance, as in all others. We have an excellent police force, dedicated to one thing: the safety and well-being of the campus community. In the days that followed, armchair experts with seemingly little understanding of how a police department and the office of the local district attorney operate, or of the investigative norms that are applied to all cases, not to mention the details of this particular case, immediately expressed disbelief and anger that the suspect had not been arrested. These critics stated without substantiation that the delay was somehow due to the imputed political beliefs of the campus administration. In so doing they willfully impugned the integrity and independence of the excellent officers of the UCPD who seek to uphold the law regardless of who the perpetrators are, or what they happen to believe in.”

Mogulof said the university decided to release the statement — written after  Trump’s Saturday speech — in part because of the frustration administrators feel about what gets reported and what gets left out. National newspapers, television stations and websites reported the assault. The videos of the event went viral on Facebook and Twitter. But there has been little information distributed about how much money UC Berkeley has spent to ensure the safety of conservative speakers on campus, said Mogulof. Cal spent about $4 million in the past year on these security measures, he said.

“Although we made every effort to inform the media, not a single outlet reported on the incontestable fact that these conservative student groups hosted a large number of conservative speakers, including Charlie Kirk (founder of Turning Point USA), Rick Santorum, Dennis Prager, Heather MacDonald, Candace Owens, Dave Rubin, Steve Simpson, Antonia Okafor and Allie Stuckey. Not a single disruption. No opposition. No protest. No coverage.

Our commitment to freedom of speech and belief is unwavering and no amount of incomplete, distorted news coverage is going to change that.”

This is not the first time Trump has threatened to take away funding from UC Berkeley. In Feb. 2017, after a riot started by black-clad Antifa protesters prompted UC Berkeley officials to cancel a planned speech by the provocateur Milo Yiannopoulos, Trump linked that action to government support.


Update: 1:40 pm: This article incorrectly stated that the UC Berkeley statement was written before Trump’s Saturday speech. It was not. However, UC officials had been thinking about its composition before the speech, said Mogulof.

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Frances Dinkelspiel, Berkeleyside and CItyside co-founder, is a journalist and author. Her first book, Towers of Gold: How One Jewish Immigrant Named Isaias Hellman...