In the wake of the Cal Poly College Republicans’ invitation for Milo Yiannopoulos to speak at Cal Poly on Jan. 31, there was a flurry of criticism from students at Cal Poly, particularly members of the advocacy groups SLO Solidarity and Queer Student Union (QSU).
After students from QSU called upon Cal Poly President Jeffrey Armstrong to shut down the speech altogether via pre-formatted emails in late November, which the administration refused to do in the name of free speech, alumna Heidi Petersen started a petition on change.org calling to change the speech to a panel discussion. The petition began to gain some traction.
QSU President and political science junior Matt Klepfer praised the principle of the petition that proposed a format change from an uncontested speech to a panel discussion with opposing viewpoints.
“I’m personally a big fan of the panel format,” Klepfer said. “It really aligns with my politics of a marketplace of idea where ideas can compete … and they can have that dialogue.”
However, the university stated that changing the format of the speech is not within its power and that in protection of free speech, Cal Poly would not intervene.
“[Yiannopoulos’] appearance and how he expresses himself is not something the university can dictate,” university spokesperson Matt Lazier said. “As a public campus, Cal Poly has a responsibility to uphold free speech and provide an open forum for a variety of opinions, thoughts and ideas.”
The proposal of a format change has been rejected by the Cal Poly College Republicans who remain firm on the initially-planned speech format.
“There will be a question-and-answer period in the format we have planned,”Cal Poly College Republicans’ President Katherine Rueckert said. “We have no intention of changing it.”
Rueckert maintained that Yiannopoulos has been invited to speak purely due to his support of free speech and his willingness to be politically incorrect.
“Milo is a leading critic of the systematic censorship found on college campuses,” civil engineering junior Rueckert 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.”
QSU has rejected this justification, suggesting the invitation goes beyond just advocating free speech.
“Cal Poly College Republicans … are bringing a lesbophobic, sexist, white-supremacist to our campus,” QSU said in a document posted on its Facebook page on Dec. 7. “Critically, the Cal Poly College Republicans are bringing him to campus not solely because they believe in his right to speak … but primarily because they actually believe the ideas Milo stands for.”
Cal Poly Democrats have also begun to draft an open letter voicing its opposition to Yiannopoulos and the upcoming event. However, Cal Poly Democrats Vice President Sebastian Hamirani reiterated that the club is a supporter of free speech.
“As Democrats, we value the First Amendment,” economics junior Hamirani said. “We’re focused on the immorality, not legality, of this event. I implore my republican counterparts to understand how this speaker represents hateful ideas and recognize the lack of factual support for those thoughts.”
In an op-ed article published by Breitbart News on Dec. 3 entitled, “Cal Poly Progressives attempt to sabotage Milo event with format change,” Breitbart journalist Dan Pringle dismissed Petersen’s petition.
In response to the possibility of SLO Solidarity or other students, “[shutting] him up,” Yiannopoulos replied, “Fat chance.”
This response does not deter QSU from continuing to publicly oppose the event, however. Recently, QSU turned its attention to Brian Kennelly, the faculty adviser for Cal Poly College Republicans.
In a Facebook post made on Dec. 4 and in its Dec. 7 statement, QSU encouraged those opposed to Yiannopoulos’ talk to email Kennelly with their grievances. A graphic displaying Kennelly’s e-mail was distributed via the QSU Facebook page and was sent to members of the Queer Studies Working Group by political science junior and QSU member Mick Bruckner.
The post stated, “[Kennelly] is responsible for inviting white supremacist nazi, Milo Yiannopoulos to Cal Poly’s campus.”
However, Kennelly, who has received many emails and phone calls as a result of this campaign, states he had little to do with inviting Yiannopoulos to campus.
“I have a pretty hands-off philosophy,” Kennelly said. “I try to advise them on legality and stay within university perimeters … This is a speaker that the students really wanted to bring. I didn’t tell them absolutely ‘no.’ I didn’t try and influence their decision any way … I didn’t have any say really in bringing him to campus at all.”
Even so, Kennelly, who is also a French professor, supports the Cal Poly College Republicans in its decision to invite Yiannopoulos.
“This is a prime example of how students can grow in their involvement with a club,” Kennelly said. “A student group might choose to invite a speaker and the response might be really negative and the student group might, as a result, determine that it was a bad decision. And that’s an opportunity for those students … That’s part of why I like the students to drive the show and whenever necessary I try and steer them in the right direction.”
The leadership of Cal Poly College Republicans has not commented on whether students within its group hold views similar to Yiannopoulos or the so-called “alt-right.” Rather, the group wants students to come so they may be exposed to a different perspective.
“Milo’s views are his own,” Rueckert said. “We invite individuals to come to his talk and make their own decisions.”
Kennelly is unaware of any ideological influence behind the event, but lists the gravity of the speaker and the possibility to spur a healthy debate as likely motivations for the Cal Poly College Republicans.
“I believe that as with probably many clubs on this campus, the members come in all shapes, forms, sizes and political leanings. And there are probably some members of the club who might agree with Milo’s views on feminism, or on Islam,” Kennelly said. “There might be others who vehemently disagree with those views because they are sick and tired with this oppression of political correctness. Others might want to see him speak just for the sheer entertainment/shock value. I have no idea really what the club had in mind, but I do think that they wanted to invite a speaker who would draw a lot of interest and stimulate healthy, civil, legal debate on our campus.”
Even so, regardless of the motivation for the event, QSU raised concerns about the potential for violence as a result of Yiannopoulos coming to Cal Poly.
“We need to talk about when does that speech incite violence against communities on our campus and in the country and where is that boundary,” Klepfer said. “And I think having a fascist coming to campus who is going to say these things and is going to inspire people to do acts of violence against people in our community, and that is going to happen.”
Kennelly addressed this concern, stating that he and the university were making plans to minimize the risk of any violence as a result of the event.
“I think it’s always important to anticipate reactions that we might not want on this campus,” Kennelly said. “The key thing in this case is for the university to be prepared for any possible response and be hopeful that this doesn’t happen … I was just on the phone earlier this morning with a member of the administration and we’re meeting tomorrow to make sure that we have a very, very solid plan in place to give the students a safe space and opportunity to engage in a healthy, robust debate.”
With the university’s refusal to intervene in the event and Cal Poly College Republicans remaining steadfast despite the negative response, Yiannopoulos’ talk on Jan. 31 will likely continue as originally planned.
As a self-proclaimed “virtuous troll” who claims to be “doing God’s work,” Yiannopoulos is an ardent supporter of the emerging “alt-right” movement — a far right political movement characterized by its tribalism, anti-immigration, anti-feminism and political incorrectness.
Yiannopoulos’ “Dangerous Faggot” tour that began in September is bringing him to college campuses across the U.S., Cal Poly among them.
Yiannopoulos is no stranger to controversy. He currently serves as a technology editor for Breitbart News — a far right opinion and news website — and has been criticized for his views on Islam, women and LGBTQ people.
In the statement that it gave on Dec. 7, QSU addressed Cal Poly’s conservative community directly, asking for support in opposing Yiannopoulos.
“To conservative members of the Cal Poly community,” QSU said. “Do the words Milo says, not his right to say them, represent your politics? If not, join us in our fight for a better world.”