UC Berkeley Chancellor: Trump's Threat to Cut Federal Funding 'Ill Informed'

A campus police officer talks on his radio after protesters toppled a mobile light trailer and set it on fire during a demonstration against the scheduled appearance of Milo Yiannopoulos at UC Berkeley on Feb. 1, 2017. (Bert Johnson/KQED)

UC Berkeley Chancellor Nicholas Dirks commented publicly for the first time Tuesday on President Trump's tweet threatening federal funds to the university.

After violence broke out on the UC Berkeley campus last week, forcing the cancellation of an appearance by right-wing provocateur and Breitbart News editor Milo Yiannopoulos, President Trump tweeted:

“It seems to have been ill-informed,” Dirks said. “It's fairly well established that some of the tweets that come out of the White House these days are based on things seen on certain kinds of news sources -- whether television or perhaps even Breitbart -- and I don't think the real news got out.”

Dirks and UC Berkeley Police Department Chief Margo Bennett say the school went out of its way to protect freedom of speech and the right to protest peacefully. And a group of outside agitators thwarted them.

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Here’s part of the interview, edited for clarity and brevity.

Who is responsible for the cancellation of Milo Yiannopoulos’ speech?

Dirks: It’s very clear to us there was a group that came in from the outside. They had masks to obscure their identity, and they seemed to be carrying a variety of weapons. They were launching M-80s from some kind of projectile device. They were throwing some Molotov cocktails and they were very organized and they presented a threat to both the event and to the people who were lawfully assembled on Sproul Plaza, and to the people in the student union, of a kind we have not seen before.

Do you think the university bears responsibility for not doing enough to enable the speech to happen? The 'black bloc' is not new to Bay Area protests. You knew for weeks Yiannopoulos was coming and the protests surrounding his appearances.

Dirks: We had tracked the previous appearances at Davis and the University of Washington. The black bloc weren’t there. We had done everything we could do. We’re a university. We’re not the National Guard.


Bennett: This is a new twist in protest management for us we will be thinking about as we move forward.

Why the strategy not to make mass arrests or use a more aggressive response?

Bennett: We knew that if we went out into the crowd with the intent of making these mass arrests, it would have escalated the violence that was out there and people would have really gotten hurt, seriously hurt.

You’ve called the black bloc outsiders -- how do you know there were not students involved?

Dirks: At the moment, we actually don’t know who those masked individuals were. To the extent that we’ve been able to secure anecdotal information about this, we believe they were outsiders. Maybe there were some members of the community who were part of that. We will try to find out and we are looking into it at the present time.

Has this incident tarnished UC Berkeley’s reputation as a bastion of free speech?

Dirks: I don’t think we’ve been tarnished at all. In fact, I’ve been hearing from people across the country that we have indeed honored our tradition and have been exemplary in terms of our commitment to freedom of speech.

There are lots of representations of what happened here that I think are being driven by political agendas that have no particular regard for the evidence that is part of this or any of the facts and truth that surrounds it.

Milo Yiannopoulos said in a Facebook post that he plans to come back to give the speech he was unable to give. What sort of security measures do you plan to put in place next time?

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Bennett: There are things that the administration working together needs to think about when it comes to venue, time of day, what day of the week, how we can better control what we expect.

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