The University of California at Berkeley’s inhospitality to conservative speakers, the subject of a federal lawsuit filed on Monday, prompted a Twitter rebuke from President Trump a few months ago. Yet his administration seems determined to demonstrate that suppression of opposing views is a bipartisan impulse.
Berkeley College Republicans, which invited conservative commentator Ann Coulter to speak on campus this Thursday evening, and Young America’s Foundation, which underwrote her visit, argue that Berkeley’s vague, unwritten policy regarding “high-profile speakers” unconstitutionally discriminates against unpopular viewpoints. As a result of that policy, which was adopted after violent protests prompted the university to shut down a February 1 appearance by former Breitbart News editor Milo Yiannopoulos, Berkeley canceled Coulter’s speech, then offered to reschedule it for next Tuesday afternoon, in the middle of the “dead week” between classes and exams.
BCR says it felt compelled to cancel an April 12 talk by another conservative journalist, David Horowitz, after the university insisted that it take place at an inconvenient location and end by 3 p.m., meaning most students would be in class while Horowitz was speaking. BCR and YAF say the restrictions imposed by Berkeley in the name of public safety have not been applied to left-leaning speakers and amount to an “unlawful heckler’s veto” that marginalizes conservative voices.
After the Milo melee in February, Trump suggested on Twitter that Berkeley risks losing federal funds if it “does not allow free speech.” If the president were sincerely committed to protecting First Amendment rights, he would issue similar warnings to the Department of Homeland Security, which recently demanded that Twitter reveal the identity of a DHS gadfly, and the Justice Department, which is considering criminal charges against people who share classified information leaked by others.
Last month a special agent in charge at Customs and Border Protection, a division of DHS, issued a summons to Twitter seeking records that would unmask the person or persons behind @ALT_USCIS, an account that regularly criticizes the Trump administration’s immigration policies. There did not seem to be any legal justification for the summons, which looked like a blatant attempt to intimidate critics.
DHS dropped the summons the day after Twitter filed a lawsuit arguing that it threatened the First Amendment right to engage in pseudonymous political speech. Last week, in response to inquiries by Sen. Ron Wyden, D, Ore., DHS Inspector General John Roth revealed that his office is investigating whether the CBP summons was “improper.”
The day before Roth expressed concern about government inquiries that might have “a chilling effect on individuals’ free speech rights,” CNN and The Washington Post reported that the Justice Department is once again looking for a way to prosecute WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange for sharing classified documents with the public. The Obama administration abandoned that project after concluding that charging Assange with violating the Espionage Act would create a precedent that could be used against any news organization that publishes stories based on “defense information” from sources who obtained or divulged it illegally — a very common journalistic practice.
CIA Director Mike Pompeo says we shouldn’t worry about that because Assange is not a real journalist, a debatable and constitutionally irrelevant point. The “freedom of the press” that is guaranteed by the First Amendment is not the freedom of people who work for officially recognized news outlets; it is the freedom to use technologies of mass communication.
That freedom extends to everyone in the United States, whether or not he is a professional journalist or an American citizen. If Assange broke the Espionage Act by distributing classified material within the U.S., that means he used “the press” there.
Trump, who declared “I love WikiLeaks!” when it was revealing embarrassing information about Hillary Clinton, has changed his tune now that he perceives a threat to his government’s secrets. When he was asked about a potential criminal case against Assange last Friday, Trump said, “It’s OK with me.”