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Trump's tweets are like 'doodles on a scratch pad,' says U.C. Berkeley dean

A scene outside a Wells Fargo Bank in Berkeley, California on February, 1, 2017, during protests against a scheduled speech by Breitbart editor Milo Yiannopoulos at the University of California at Berkeley.
Josh Edelson | AFP | Getty Images
A scene outside a Wells Fargo Bank in Berkeley, California on February, 1, 2017, during protests against a scheduled speech by Breitbart editor Milo Yiannopoulos at the University of California at Berkeley.

Reactions from civic and community leaders are pouring in after Donald Trump's apparent threat to pull federal funding from U.C. Berkeley. Trump's comments came after the university cancelled an appearance by Breitbart editor and Trump supporter Milo Yiannopoulos, following a fiery protest by more than a thousand demonstrators. The protesters hurled smoke bombs, broke windows and sparked a massive bonfire to protest the firebrand editor's speech, scheduled for Tuesday night.

In a statement, university officials wrote, "UC Berkeley condemns in the strongest possible terms the action of individuals who invaded the campus, infiltrated a crowd of peaceful students, and used violent tactics to close down the event," adding U.C. Police "concluded that the speaker had to be evacuated from campus for his own safety, thereby bringing the event to an end."

In an early morning tweet Wednesday, Trump condemned the university:


According to the university's 2014-2015 Annual Financial Report, U.C. Berkeley received $466.5 million in federal funding. The number includes grants, contracts and bond subsidies.

Among the Democrats who fired back at Trump was Barbara Lee (D-Oakland), whose district includes the campus:

Berkeley Mayor Jesse Arreguin told CNBC that Trump's tweets could put U.C. Berkeley students on edge.

"It's a real concern. I think the university's been concerned ever since he took office that there would be deep cuts in federal funding, " said Arreguin. "It's really irresponsible for the President to make such a claim," he added.

But Ed Wasserman, dean at U.C.Berkeley's Graduate School of Journalism, believes Trump's tweets shouldn't be taken literally.

"I don't think that Trump's implied threat should be taken seriously. I don't think 90 percent of his tweets should be taken seriously. He tweets the way someone doodles on a scratchpad when we're sitting in a meeting," Wasserman told CNBC.

The incident also touched off debate about freedom of speech. While Trump argued in his tweet that Yiannopoulos' freedom of speech was curtailed, critics of the Breitbart editor say Yiannopoulos' provocative language is hate speech.

Wasserman says in this case, the line between free speech and hate speech is murky.

"I'm reluctant to condemn it as hate speech...," said Wasserman, "but I would certainly say that I understand the discomfort that people feel about him, and understand people who feel that way not just because they don't like to be referred to in the ways that he refers to them, but they're very much afraid that other people will be emboldened by his words and act in ways that are genuinely harmful to them."

The university dean later pointed out to CNBC that while hate speech on its own is not illegal, it can be used as evidence of hatred, which can lead to stiffer punishments in certain hate-crime cases.

For his part, Wasserman worries that political divisions across the country will mute freedom of speech.

"It certainly doesn't look good right now," he said. "People aren't listening to each other, they're shouting at each other."

Correction: Ed Wasserman, dean at U.C. Berkeley's Graduate School of Journalism, says he misspoke in an earlier version of this article. It was updated to clarify that hate speech is not, on its own, illegal.