A talk scheduled for Tuesday night at Cal Poly by controversial conservative speaker Milo Yiannopoulos is drawing a mixed reaction from students, faculty and staff — some are either planning to protest, attend a competing comedy show on campus, or altogether avoid the divisive event that has incited violence at other universities.
Yiannopoulos, a gay right-wing pundit and an influential voice for Breitbart News, is scheduled to appear from 6 to 9 p.m. at the 496-seat Spanos Theatre as part of his national “Dangerous Faggot” tour across college campuses nationwide.
Cal Poly is holding an alternate event, featuring socio-political comedian W. Kamau Bell, at the same time at the adjacent Performing Arts Center. Bell’s event, called “Unite Cal Poly,” was coordinated by Cal Poly’s Office of University Diversity and Inclusivity in collaboration with the College of Liberal Arts. As of Thursday, 800 tickets had been given away to Bell’s event.
Yiannopoulos is a leading voice in the so-called “alt-right” movement, an offshoot of conservatism that mixes populism and white nationalism with aggressive online activism. Yiannopoulos was permanently banned from Twitter in July for launching a harassment campaign against comedian Leslie Jones.
Yiannopoulos’ appearances at campuses across the country have led to shouting matches and punches thrown as protesters clashed with his supporters.
On Friday, a 32-year-old man protesting Yiannopoulos’ talk at the University of Washington sustained a gunshot wound in the stomach. The alleged shooter’s Facebook page indicates he is a supporter of President Donald Trump, Yiannopoulos and the National Rifle Association, according to the Seattle Times. The man claimed he shot in self-defense after a scuffle involving several people. He was questioned and released by law enforcement officials.
And at UC Davis, a scheduled Jan. 13 talk featuring Yiannopoulos was canceled before it could begin because of protests outside.
Yiannopoulos, who denies being a white supremacist, as some critics have called him, has made statements that opponents say align him with racial bigotry.
Those include statements that Muslims are prone to violence, radicalism and gang rape, as well as calls for efforts to block Muslim immigration into the United States. He has made reference to an “alien culture, dedicated to the destruction of the West” appearing “everywhere in America.” Yiannopoulos also has created a “Yiannopoulos Privilege Grant” scholarship available exclusively to white men, though the website says “applications are not yet open.”
Cal Poly officials say the University Police Department has been working diligently to ensure security at the event, and they have been closely monitoring the activities at other college campuses.
“Ensuring the safety and well-being of our students, faculty and staff is among the university’s primary responsibilities,” university spokesman Matt Lazier said. “ … This will include bringing in additional resources from other (California State University) campuses and other agencies around the county as needed.”
San Luis Obispo County’s Regional SWAT team will be activated in the event of an emergency that cannot be handled by CSU staff and law enforcement, San Luis Obispo police Chief Deanna Cantrell said. San Luis Obispo police will provide as many as 12 officers for the event, she said.
Matt Klepfer, a Cal Poly student and social justice activist, said he is aware of multiple Facebook groups calling for protests of the event, though some students are choosing to respond in different ways, with some attending Bell’s show and others avoiding Yiannopoulos.
“I imagine there will be a wide diversity of tactics and organizing, as well as a wide variety of people who come out to show their support against the things that Milo believes,” Klepfer said. “I think a lot of people will be at the Unite Cal Poly event.”
Klepfer said he hasn’t made up his mind yet where he’ll be.
“I will either be at the Unite Cal Poly event, protesting outside of Milo’s event, at home hanging out and taking care of myself, or I’ll be in Long Beach at the CSU Board of Trustees meeting, where the board will be discussing the potential tuition increase for 2017-18 for the first time,” Klepfer said. (The vote is at the next meeting meeting in March.)
Cal Poly students Isaac Schick and Abby Zilvitis, members of the Cal Poly Against Donald Trump student group, said that trying to silence or shut down Yiannopoulos isn’t a wise strategy, and they won’t protest.
“The ignorant and hateful things that Milo says cause real and tangible harm to people, but I strongly believe that the way to combat that harm is to beat him at his own game rather than be oppressive ourselves,” Zilvitis said. “When we silence speech and opinion, we prove to the people who hate us that they are right to do so.”
Schick added, “I offered a solution to the Milo problem months ago, and it was a simple one — don’t engage with him. I said that the best way to beat him would be to not validate and promote his event through protests and free publicity.”
Still, Schick said he wants to make it clear that he despises Yiannopoulos “because he uses being gay and ‘into black guys’ as a way of deflecting most criticism that comes his way.”
The Cal Poly College Republicans, who organized the event, said they appreciate Yiannopoulos fighting against political correctness.
“Milo is a leading critic of the systematic censorship found on college campuses,” Cal Poly College Republicans President Katherine Rueckert has said. “Many individuals think that his ‘politically incorrect’ speech is refreshing. He has struck a chord that resonates with young people, which has contributed to his rise in popularity. … (Yiannopoulos) is willing to ask questions that are uncomfortable.”
Cal Poly faculty Neal MacDougall and Michael Costello have called on Cal Poly’s administration to cancel the event, saying Yiannopoulos’ point of view violates the university’s ongoing commitment to diversity, tolerance and inclusivity. MacDougall and Costello plan to present their letter to Cal Poly President Jeffrey Armstrong on Friday.
“President Armstrong, if you are truly committed to diversity and inclusivity, please honor your position as a university president and educator and announce that a talk by Mr. Yiannopoulos does not further the intellectual discussion of diversity and inclusivity, and that you are willing to absorb the criticism that will inevitably follow,” the letter reads.
Costello said he has the “highest respect for Armstrong,” but Armstrong is the moral leader of Cal Poly, and it’s “unacceptable to provide a platform” for Yiannopoulos to make comments that Costello believes denigrate women and minority groups.
Cal Poly has repeatedly said Yiannopoulos has free speech rights and the university can’t dictate how he expresses himself. However, Armstrong said generally on Thursday that “we value a welcoming and inclusive campus environment that respects, celebrates and embraces the diverse perspectives and cultures of our students, faculty and staff.”
“While we support freedom of speech, we find offensive any language that would seek to undermine our ideals, hurt members of our campus and divide our community,” Armstrong said.
In a letter to the campus community Wednesday, while repeating Cal Poly’s view that Yiannopoulos’ talk is part of a free exchange of opposing ideas, Armstrong also expressed disgust that a number of fliers were recently posted on campus bulletin boards with hateful and divisive comments.
It’s unclear who posted the fliers, which included insults and sexual references about gays and lesbians on a mock queer studies minor course list.
“I, along with others, find these postings vile and disgusting, and I stand squarely with those who have been hurt by the content,” Armstrong said. “ … However, as a free speech campus, postings with potentially offensive content are permitted in assigned locations according to university policy.”
Cal Poly’s Republican club president said in an email Thursday that people have a right to protest Yiannopoulos, but noted “violence, however, is not an acceptable form of protest.”
“We support Milo’s right to freedom of speech,” Rueckert said. “What he says may or may not be controversial to different individuals, but that notion is what drives intellectual diversity. Freedom of speech does not and should not guarantee freedom from disagreement.”