Trump Can’t Just Take Berkeley’s Funding Over Milo Spat

Trump tweeted about withholding federal funds to the U.C. school. Fortunately, that's easier said than done

Protesters at University of California, Berkeley, ignite a MAGA cap. — Getty Images
Feb 02, 2017 at 6:07 PM ET

President Donald Trump is threatening once again to withhold federal money from an entity that has displeased him. First, it was sanctuary cities that refused to arrest undocumented immigrants based solely on their immigration status. Now, it’s a public university.

After a violent protest erupted on University of California’s Berkeley campus, where Twitter-banned hateful provocateur Milo Yiannopoulos was scheduled to give speech, Trump responded with an early morning tweet-threat that implied he would pull the school’s federal funding.

Trump’s take on what happened at Berkeley was not accurate; the school itself did not forbid Yiannopoulos from speaking as evidenced by the fact that he was scheduled to speak there. In a statement, Berkeley noted its legacy as “the home of the Free Speech Movement” and while it did not agree with Yiannopoulos’s views, he was the invited guest of a student group and therefore allowed to express them.

It took extra crowd control and security measures to prepare for Yiannopoulos’s arrival, but the precautions ultimately were not enough and police “evacuated” Yiannopoulos “for his own safety.” There is no evidence that the school itself “practice[d] violence” on Yiannopoulos, as Trump suggested, or anyone else. The violent protesters invaded the campus and may not have even been students. Protesters damaged parts of the school, which it will presumably have to pay to repair.

That said, Berkeley does receive federal funding. Nearly every college in the country does, with a few religious schools that refuse to adhere to Title IX opting out. This funding comes in many forms, such as financial aid and research grants. Berkeley recently announced it received a $3.6 million grant from the National Institutes of Health, for example. The University of California’s 2017-18 budget, which covers Berkeley and the rest of the schools in the system, says that in 2016-17 it received an estimated $9 billion in “federal support,” which included $3.5 billion for Medicare and Medicaid reimbursements to its medical centers. The rest was contracts and grants and student financial aid. The system’s operating budget in 2016-17, was $31.5 billion.

So the school certainly needs its federal funding. But can Trump actually take all that money away? Most schools that have lost or have been threatened with the loss of federal funds are in violation of civil rights rules or have been caught falsifying information on federal grant applications. That doesn’t seem to be the case here. Restricting federal funding because of student protest (and it’s possible that none of the violent protesters were students in the first place), experts say, can’t happen.

“The short answer is that the feds can’t withhold funding because of legitimate student expression/protest on campus, which is protected by First Amendment principles and law,” Art Coleman, who served as deputy assistant secretary of the Department of Education’s Office for Civil Rights from 1997 to 2000 and is currently the managing partner and co-founder of EducationCouncil, told Vocativ. “To be clear, that is a very simple answer to a field that is complex, so not all circumstances necessarily fall into this cleanly.”

Terry Hartle, the vice president of the American Council on Education, told the Los Angeles Times that “there is no current law allowing funding to be stopped for alleged unwillingness to hear another’s point of view … Congress would have to give the president legal authority to do it, but it would be problematic.”

Yiannopoulos’s tour has created controversy at several (if not all) of its stops. At the University of Wisconsin, Milwaukee, Yiannopoulos singled out a transgender student for ridicule last December. Two weeks ago, as Yiannopoulos spoke at the University of Washington, a protester was shot by a man that the Seattle Times reported was a fan of Yiannopoulos and had sent him a message on Facebook. He has not yet been charged in the incident, and has claimed he acted in self-defense.