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President Trump's ceaseless attacks on the press make him an unlikely First Amendment crusader, but that didn't stop him from signing an executive order last week that vaguely and redundantly commands federal agencies to withhold funding from universities deemed hostile to free speech.

Trump's proximate cause celebre is one Hayden Williams, a conservative activist whose silly slogans so enraged a misguided passerby on UC Berkeley's Sproul Plaza that their encounter ended with a lavishly recorded and broadcast punch in the face. Williams' black eye was cited as the latest evidence of liberal campuses' violent suppression of conservative views.

The president's ultimatum to Berkeley and other campuses, which he said threatens "billions and billions" in research grants, promotes the misunderstanding that the First Amendment protects expression from every imaginable interference or inconvenience. In fact, it's government infringement of free speech that the founding document forbids.

It follows that a man who in his private capacity socks another man for his expressed opinions, while rightly subject to ostracism and arrest, does not normally raise constitutional questions. A president wielding federal power to punish or compel expression, however, is a more likely First Amendment offender.

College campuses have indeed seen a troubling increase in intolerance of certain views, and protests of conservative speakers at Berkeley and other universities have occasionally turned violent. This is an educational challenge and potentially an institutional one. In 2017, when Berkeley officials found themselves in the difficult position of mediating between deliberately inflammatory conservative speakers and dangerous demonstrators, they made the mistake of appearing insufficiently eager to facilitate free expression.

The university soon rectified those missteps, however, by developing a consistent policy and making extraordinary efforts to accommodate controversial speakers. It also came to an agreement with a conservative group that sued the school.

As a public university, Berkeley is obligated by the First Amendment and more to ensure free expression. But despite the evident desire of conservative activists and media to portray last month's assault as a case of the university falling short of that obligation, it wasn't. Neither Williams nor his alleged assailant, Zachary Greenberg of Oakland, is a Berkeley student, and the university couldn't have foreseen the assault. Campus police sought the public's help identifying the suspect the next day, the administration rightly denounced the "reprehensible incident" the day after that, and Greenberg was arrested the following week.

This isn't a conspiracy to suppress political views; it's a street crime that is being appropriately prosecuted. If anything here is a state-sponsored menace to free expression, it's the president's readiness to threaten higher education budgets on such a flimsy basis.

-- San Francisco Chronicle

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