Conservative speaker Lauren Southern’s presentation Thursday at Cal Poly — and the march and protest that it was met with — was marked by little more than a clash of differing views.
More than 100 protesters gathered in front of the University Union and marched to the Fisher Science building, where the speech, titled “Return of Traditional Women,” was held in a lecture hall filled with a crowd of approximately equal size.
It was hardly of the size or contentious nature of protests that occurred in response to another conservative firebrand, Milo Yiannopoulos, who spoke at Cal Poly in January. But that’s not to say it was a meeting of the minds.
Protesters brandished flags and banners that made clear their disdain for Southern, a Canadian conservative-libertarian activist who once said, “There is no rape culture in the West.”
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“She is a rape apologist, plain and simple,” said Morgan Grace, a fourth-year student at Cal Poly majoring in graphic communication and a representative of the Cal Poly Queer Student Union, one of several student groups that organized the protest.
Grace was the first of a handful of protesters who spoke to the crowd gathered in front of the Fisher Science building, many sharing stories of their own sexual assaults — all under the vigilant eye of a noticeable police presence.
Cal Poly spokesman Matt Lazier said Friday that there were no arrests made at the event. He said 16 university police officers, along with two from the San Luis Police Department, were on duty for event security, costing $3,000 in overtime.
“What we were very upset about was that Cal Poly willingly gave people like them a platform to spew hate and make this campus more unsafe for marginalized students,” Grace said. “And it’s already very tough being a marginalized student at Cal Poly.”
As protesters spoke, a crowd of presumably mostly conservatives lined up to hear Southern’s take on the role of the “traditional” woman. (Southern announced the event, organized by the Cal Poly Republicans, on Twitter on Sunday.)
“I figured that I’m going to get flack from people on the far right saying I’m not traditional enough, therefore I shouldn’t even be speaking here,” Southern said to kick off her speech, even joking about one of the protest banners featuring her mug shot on a poop emoji. “And people on the far left are saying that traditionalism is inherently evil, so I decided to take to the kitchen. And I baked a pie for the haters.”
Southern, who did actually reveal a pie, spoke for more than an hour to her supporters while officers were stationed at all four corners of the venue. Outside on the cool, overcast evening, lingering protesters and supporters engaged in some spirited arguments but eventually dispersed without incident.
“It’s kind of like a big deal to have any conservative speaker at Cal Poly, considering that for the most part every university in California is profoundly liberal,” said supporter Ceaser Hurtado, a third-year biomedical engineering major at Cal Poly, before the speech. “I don’t really agree 100 percent with what (Southern) says, but I will come to hear her say that.”
Grace made clear that the protest was not meant to stifle an opposing side’s right to free speech.
“We’ve run into a very similar issue when Milo came here, and a lot of people would discredit our efforts by saying that we’re violating free speech,” she said. “But the issue is that, sure, people like Lauren Southern and Milo have the right to free speech, they have the right to say whatever they want to say, but their freedom of speech is not freedom from consequence.”