Right-wing provocateur and Breitbart editor Milo Yiannopoulos brings his act to Cal Poly next week. That’s triggered calls to ban him from campus or, at the very least, to change the format of his speech to a panel discussion.
The university has agreed to neither. From a legal standpoint, that’s the right move.
“We have a responsibility to protect free speech,” Cal Poly attorney Dawn Theodora told the San Luis Obispo Human Relations Commission on Tuesday night.
We agree; a public university should not pick and choose who is allowed to speak on campus.
However, the university ignored that responsibility in 2009 when award-winning author and journalist Michael Pollan was scheduled to lecture on sustainable agriculture. At the behest of the chairman of Harris Ranch Beef Co. — a potential Cal Poly donor — the format of Pollan’s appearance was changed to a panel discussion so someone could counter his views.
Now, that decision is coming back to haunt Cal Poly, in the form of the suggestion that someone with an opposing view appear alongside Yiannopoulos.
In response, Cal Poly administrators point out that the event is sponsored by Cal Poly College Republicans — not the university — and it’s up to the sponsoring organization to decide the format.
Again, we agree. The Pollan episode should not create a precedent. If anything, Cal Poly should turn this into an opportunity to admit it never should have caved on Pollan. (To be clear, there was a different administration in charge then.)
That brings us back to Yiannopoulos. For those unfamiliar with him, his specialty is ugly rhetoric — anti-immigrant rants, ridicule of feminists, overweight people, transgender people, liberals and even verbal and visual attacks on specific individuals at universities.
From a legal stand point, Yiannopoulos is exercising his right to free speech.
Theodora put it this way: “Hateful speech is free speech, unfortunately.”
And hateful it is. His show is not as much about right-wing causes as it is about mockery and ridicule and crude humor. It’s not satire, it’s viciousness, and it’s driving student protests, including one at UC Davis that led to cancellation of his speaking engagement. Another of his appearances at a college campus in Washington state was disrupted by a shooting outside the speaking venue just last weekend.
Protests are expected at Cal Poly, and the university is preparing for them.
Bullhorns, signs and chanting will be allowed outside, but anyone who attempts to shut down the event by blocking access or engaging in attempts to disrupt the speech itself — activities referred to as the “heckler’s veto” — could be arrested.
The university will start with issuing warnings in the event of trouble, but as administrators told the Human Relations Commission on Tuesday, it is preparing a “strong and robust” response should the situation get out of hand.
The university also is offering an alternative event on the night of Yiannopoulos’ visit. Comedian W. Kamau Bell will perform at the PAC in an event that will be limited to Poly students, faculty and staff.
That’s all well and good. But as was mentioned by speakers at the Human Relations Commission, Cal Poly has not taken a strong ethical stand against the type of hate speech that is Yiannopoulos’ stock-in-trade.
It was suggested that a statement from President Jeffrey Armstrong, stressing that Yiannopoulos does not reflect the values of Cal Poly, would go a long way. That’s true, and we, too, would like to hear Armstrong take a stand.
However, we believe Cal Poly College Republicans could make a far stronger statement.
This is an excellent opportunity for the organization to recognize that the right to free speech is precious, and should not be squandered on someone peddling hatred, bigotry and meanness.
Cal Poly College Republicans could — and should — disinvite Yiannopoulos.