Organizers of a planned panel discussion at Cal Poly on fake news announced Friday that the event had been canceled after a third panelist withdrew.
The invitation by the Cal Poly College Republicans of Bill Whittle, a Los Angeles-based conservative commentator, to speak at “Fake News: What is it and who decides” drew outcry from some students on campus for his views on race and religion, prompting his withdrawal from the event.
His inclusion had previously led to the the withdrawal of fellow panelist Cory Black, a Democratic consultant and guest of the Democrats of Cal Poly, which also said their group would drop out.
BBC News producer Sue Mitchell also pulled out of the event, citing BBC policy prohibiting employees from participating in politicized events, according to Mary Glick, Cal Poly Journalism Department chair.
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The College Republicans and Democrats were both co-sponsors of the event, along with the Cal Poly Journalism Department, League of Women Voters of San Luis Obispo County and Cal Poly Associated Students Inc.
Whittle’s comments in a February 2016 YouTube interview — in which he endorsed the discredited theory that race and intelligence are linked and touted the work of Linda Gottfredson, whom the Southern Poverty Law Center has labeled a white nationalist — have drawn condemnation from the left and the right. Republican candidate for Illinois governor Jeanne Ives canceled Whittle’s planned keynote speech at a Feb. 1 campaign fundraiser due to his remarks.
Marilee Hyman, co-president of the League of Women Voters of San Luis Obispo County, said the decision to cancel was made during a Friday morning meeting of event stakeholders.
“The group agreed that, at this late date, there was insufficient time (to find replacements); consequently and regrettably, the forum was canceled,” she said.
Hyman said the cancellation was regrettable “because the League of Women Voters was looking forward to a robust, educational and civil discourse on the important, timely topic of fake news.”
Cal Poly spokesman Matt Lazier said it’s unknown whether the event will be re-scheduled.
By Friday afternoon, Whittle had yet to make a public comment about his withdrawal from the panel. He expressed frustration at being uninvited from the Illinois fundraiser in a YouTube video posted Thursday.
“Coming from your own team, my first though was it just seemed to add so much credibility to this thing. You know, when somebody on your own team is basically saying, ‘We don’t want to be seen with you, we’re going to wash our hands of you because of your horrible racism,” he said.
Whittle denied being a white supremacist and said no media outlet reached out to him for comment after he was pulled from the fundraiser.
“You would just think if you were a reporter for the newspaper that you would at least give me a call,” he said.
Whittle did not respond to multiple Tribune requests for comment.
During the Friday morning meeting to discuss options, Lazier said the Cal Poly College Republicans suggested bringing in Milo Yiannopoulos to replace Whittle. Yiannopoulos, an alt-right provocateur, was the featured guest of the College Republicans in January 2017, and his appearance drew both heated protest and a heavy police presence.
“Organizers believe it is impossible to present the event as it was conceived, with so little time before the event date and with so many of the original announced panelists having withdrawn,” Lazier wrote to The Tribune. “As well, with only five days’ notice, the university would be unable to plan and provide the security measures sufficient to ensure the safety of the campus community during an event featuring Milo Yiannapoulos.”
The Cal Poly College Republicans did not respond to a request for comment.
The Democrats of Cal Poly issued a statement that they “remain open to dialogue with those who disagree with us.”
“We will continue to apply the standard we did here: Discussion must involve basic respect for all people and participants must hold themselves to reasonable standards of evidence,” club spokesman Sebastian Hamirani wrote in an email.
The Cal Poly Students for Quality Education, who were vocally opposed to Whittle’s selection, released a statement saying “Cal Poly’s decision to advance this panel so far is morally reprehensible, and the Dean of Students Office (an event co-sponsor) should be held accountable for the climate they are cultivating and financially supporting.”
In a Wednesday statement about the panel, Lazier wrote that the Dean of Students Office “supports diversity of viewpoints in all arenas of the campus community” and “cannot censor viewpoints — no matter how unpopular they may be.”
Though the panel has been canceled, Glick said her department was working to salvage what they could.
Veteran journalist Alicia Shepard, a guest of the journalism department, is still expected to come to Cal Poly, Glick said.
Shepard is a biographer of Watergate-era reporters Carl Bernstein and Bob Woodward, a former NPR ombudsman and the author of a 132-page report called “Faking News: Fraudulent News and the Fight for Truth,” which was commissioned by PEN America and published in October 2017.
Glick said her department has tentatively secured room 102 in the Baker Center from 7 to 9 p.m. Tuesday, for a question-and-answer conversation with Shepard. She said more information will be available on the journalism department’s Facebook page.