President Donald Trump signed an executive order Thursday threatening to pull funding from universities stifling free speech, naming an incident at UC Berkeley. Photo: Naweed Tahmas

President Donald Trump first threatened to cut off federal funding for UC Berkeley after protests shut down a speech by Milo Yiannopoulos on campus in 2017.

On Thursday, the president signed an executive order codifying that threat, with some of the conservative Berkeley students who invited Yiannopoulos to campus two years ago in attendance at the White House.

Trump’s order says all universities must “promote free inquiry, including through compliance with all applicable Federal laws, regulations and policies,” or they could lose federal research grants.

In short, analysts have said, the order — published in full by the Chronicle of Higher Education — asks universities to follow laws already on the books, not necessarily changing much.

“Berkeley welcomes scrutiny of its unwavering commitment to freedom of speech and diversity of perspective,” said campus spokesman Dan Mogulof on Thursday.

The Yiannopoulos event — canceled by university officials after anti-fascist protesters launched explosives and set fire to campus property to stop what they considered hate speech — made Berkeley home base for demonstrators on the right in the ensuing months. Often those protesters and antifa activists duked it out in city streets.

Those events inspired national debates over free speech, hate speech and violent protest. With the attention on UC Berkeley, the College Republicans, who’d organized the Yiannopoulos event, continued inviting controversial figures to campus throughout 2017 and 2018. They often tussled with university administrators around the logistics of those events, and over time UC Berkeley shelled out millions of dollars for security at the speeches.

The College Republicans and a national group together sued the university for stifling their free speech in 2017. The groups settled the lawsuit at the end of 2018, with UC Berkeley required to update its campus event policy and pay $70,000 in legal fees. The campus’s current policy governing major student-organized events was finalized through a public process over several tense months.

“Any legitimate scrutiny of our words and deeds in support of free speech will show that we have gone to extraordinary lengths in support of the First Amendment,” Mogulof said.

Immediately after the order was signed Thursday, Mary Sue Coleman, president of the American Association of Universities, released a statement calling it “a solution in search of a problem.”

“The free and open exchange of ideas and information is already a fundamental cornerstone of the educational mission of America’s leading research universities, and our institutions are fully committed to the protection and preservation of this proud heritage of debate and discussion,” Coleman wrote.

A planned 2017 speech by Milo Yiannopoulos, and antifa protests that shut it down (pictured) set off a series of violent demonstrations and lawsuits in Berkeley. Photo: Daniel McPartlan

The current president of the Berkeley College Republicans actually agreed — in small part — with his former adversaries.

“Berkeley has, since the lawsuit, been not as difficult to work with as they were in the past,” said junior Matt Ronnau. “For now, there’s not going to be a huge effect on Berkeley because they seem to be abiding by the rules.”

Ronnau’s club plans to bring former White House Press Secretary Sean Spicer to campus in April and Mogulof said the group is free to do that.

But Ronnau said he “absolutely” supports the executive order, in case issues arise in the future.

The student was among the current and former Berkeley College Republicans invited to fly across the country for Thursday’s event, as first reported in the San Francisco Chronicle.

“Along with a bunch of other conservative students across the country who’ve been discriminated against for their political views….we were invited to come witness the executive order signing,” said Ronnau, reached by phone as he took a cab to the event.

Trump praised his young audience Thursday before penning his signature: “You refuse to be silenced by powerful institutions and close-minded critics. You’ve fought bravely for your rights, and now you have a president who’s also fighting for you.”

When Trump initially announced, at the 2019 Conservative Political Action Conference, that he would be signing the executive order, he brought on stage Hayden Williams, a conservative activist who was punched while recruiting students on Sproul Plaza in February.

That incident, caught on video, reinvigorated the focus on UC Berkeley and assertions by conservatives and right-wing media that the university was suppressing students’ free speech. Neither Williams nor Zachary Greenberg, the Oakland man facing felony charges connected to the attack, were Cal students, however.

Trump referenced the incident in his speech on Thursday.

In Ronnau’s view, the Sproul attack was the “final nail in the coffin” that inspired the president to sign the new order.

“Really I think the president’s eye was caught two years ago when we attempted to bring Milo Yiannopoulos to campus. That really was what got him interested in the whole thing,” he said.

Naweed Tahmas, a former leader of the Berkeley College Republicans, was among the young conservatives invited to the White House on Thursday. Photo: Courtesy Tahmas

The executive order pertains only to federal research and education grants, not federal financial aid.

Last year, UC Berkeley received around $422 million in research funding from the federal government, according to the campus website. Those sources constituted about 60%  of the university’s research funding from external sponsors in 2017-18, the rest coming from the state, industry, nonprofits and the UC system.

Among the federal funders, the National Institutes of Health, the National Science Foundation and NASA contributed the most, according to Cal.

“Taxpayer dollars should not subsidize anti-First Amendment institutions, and that’s exactly what they are,” Trump said Thursday. “All of that money is now at stake,” he said, to laughter from his audience.

His executive order separately addresses federal student aid, directing the Department of Education to publicize information about the career outcomes and future earning potential at colleges and universities, as well as data on student loan repayment potential.

UC Berkeley, meanwhile, has not seen the last of the lawsuits stemming from the political clashes that rocked the campus over the past two years.

Earlier this month a federal judge dismissed most of a lawsuit naming several UC Berkeley administrators and police over their handling of the 2017 Yiannopoulos event. The four plaintiffs, individuals who said they were beaten up by antifa at the event, were allowed to move forward with their suit against two UC police officers, however.

Natalie Orenstein reports on housing and homelessness for The Oaklandside. Natalie was a Berkeleyside staff reporter from early 2017 to May 2020. She had previously contributed to the site since 2012,...