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Trump plans campus free-speech event at White House

Updated March 20, 2019 - 9:55 pm

WASHINGTON — The White House has invited conservative activists to attend an event on higher education Thursday. The guest list sent a strong signal that President Donald Trump plans to sign an executive order on campus free speech, as he promised at a conservative confab this month.

“I’m honored to have been invited to the @WhiteHouse this Thursday to hear President @realDonaldTrump speak about free speech on college campuses!” University of California’s Berkeley College Republicans President Matthias Ronnau tweeted.

When he spoke to the Conservative Political Action Conference on March 2, Trump announced, “I will be very soon signing an executive order requiring colleges and universities to support free speech if they want federal research dollars.”

Trump invited Hayden Williams, a conservative activist who was punched while representing the Leadership Institute at Berkeley last month, to join him on stage. Williams warned, “If these socialist progressives had their way, they would put our Constitution through the paper shredder in a heartbeat.”

Williams also told Trump, “If you keep defending us, we’ll keep defending you.”

Trump suggested that Williams “sue the college, the university and maybe sue the state.”

Trump: Sue for your rights

At CPAC, the president also praised Williams’ attorney, Harmeet Dhillon of San Francisco, although not by name, and predicted that someday Williams “is going to be a very wealthy young man.”

Dhillon told the Review-Journal that she had no comment on Trump’s suggestion that Williams sue. Instead, she said she wants to see the activist charged with attacking Williams, Zachary Greenberg, prosecuted.

Dhillon said she has no idea what will be included in Trump’s executive order on campus free speech, but “I’d love to see what the lawsuit looks like from a critic of the president whose position is that a university should get taxpayer dollars when they reject free speech principles.”

“It is entirely appropriate for the government to attach strings for those monies,” Dhillon said.

“Given our words and deeds over the last two years, at Berkeley at least we’re not concerned,” UC Berkeley Vice Chancellor for Communications Dan Mogulof said of Trump’s proposed executive order. “We’ve spent an extraordinary amount of money” and hosted “a very large number of prominent conservative speakers,” he added.

Other groups are withholding judgment until the order’s language is released.

The bipartisan group FIRE, which fights for free speech rights on campus, issued a statement after Trump’s CPAC speech that said, “While we are glad that this important national issue has the president’s attention, we do not currently have any information on the details of the executive order. We are looking forward to learning more about this initiative in coming days.”

Protecting all speech

Ronnau also isn’t sure what will be in the order but said, “The point of this isn’t just to protect conservative speech.” He wants an order that includes the free-speech rights of liberals as well.

Ronnau faulted Berkeley for not providing sufficient security for conservatives on campus and complained that the university’s decision to charge high “security fees” for conservative speakers constituted viewpoint discrimination. The university reached a settlement with Berkeley College Republicans last year.

Mogulof said the criticism of insufficient security is unfair. “A lone idiot walks onto a 1,200-acre campus and punches somebody,” and he is jailed and charged with a felony. “I find no room for criticism in how the university responded,” he said.

Dhillon, who represented Berkeley College Republicans in the lawsuit, however, sees an atmosphere in which far-left activists feel free to harass and intimate conservatives on campus. She does not believe police would have arrested and charged Greenberg — who pleaded not guilty to the three felony charges he faced — if someone had not videotaped the confrontation.

“The advice that I give young conservatives on campus, if you’re going to use your free speech abilities, work in groups and videotape everything,” Dhillon said.

Contact Debra Saunders at DSaunders@reviewjournal.com. Follow @DebraJSaunders on Twitter.

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