Update Feb. 7: Cal Poly College Democrats have withdrawn from the panel in response to Whittle’s invitation from Cal Poly College Republicans.
Student backlash arose with the announcement of conservative blogger Bill Whittle’s appearance as a panelist at the upcoming event, “Fake News Panel: What is it, and who decides?”
The event, which will take place Feb. 13, is co-sponsored by the Dean of Students Office, Associated Students, Inc., College of Liberal Arts, the Journalism Department, Cal Poly Democrats and Cal Poly College Republicans. The event will run in a moderated, question-and-answer format.
Students who oppose the event argued that official university entities are promoting “racist and hateful rhetoric” by co-sponsoring the event.
According to university spokesperson Matt Lazier, all co-sponsoring departments and organizations have sought to present a variety of viewpoints on the subject of fake news.
“In the interest of supporting these co-sponsors and their vision for the discussion, the Dean of Students’ Office has worked to provide logistical help but left the choice of panelists to the other sponsors,” Lazier said.
Whittle, the Cal Poly College Republicans’ chosen panelist, has sparked controversy on social media for being an overt white supremacist, according to philosophy junior Gina Welisch.
“The administration and all involved with this event should take a huge step back and realize that they just provided a platform for a white supremacist to speak,” Welisch said.
Additionally, Whittle has made Islamophobic comments, stating that Islam is at war with everyone.
Muslim Student Association President Edreese Gardizi said he believes Whittle’s negative views on Islam are being normalized by allowing him to speak on campus.
“I am disappointed that the leaders on campus, such as the Dean of Students Office and Associated Students, [Inc.] government, is endorsing and supporting the spreading of this man’s views … views that are harmful to marginalized and minority students on campus,” business administration senior Gardizi said. “It’s evident that in the organizing of the event, there was not enough planning undertaken and not enough perspectives integrated in planning the event.”
Welisch, who is vice president of the Planned Parenthood Generation Action club, echoed Gardizi’s comments. She said that by promoting the event, Cal Poly administration are giving merit to his rhetoric.
“By promoting this event, they have basically encouraged students to go and ‘hear him out’,” Welisch said. “I think it is inexcusable for an administration to ask students, particularly students of color, to ‘hear a white supremacist out.’”
Political science senior and Students for Quality Education advocate Mick Bruckner also opposed the university’s involvement in the event.
“Why not leave it to the Cal Poly College Republicans to have their own event? Why does the university need to get involved in this?” Bruckner said.
Cal Poly College Republicans declined to comment.
Lazier’s comment regarding Whittle’s appearance closely resembled his comment regarding opposition to conservative activist Milo Yiannopoulus’ appearance in Jan. 2017:
“As a public university, Cal Poly is obligated to uphold free speech on campus and allow the free exchange and discussion of opposing ideas — including those which may be unpopular with some members of our campus community,” Lazier said. “It is the university’s responsibility to support the rights of all people to express their opinions and ideas while also encouraging students to think critically and independently. It is only in this environment that students hone the ability to consider a spectrum of information and reach informed and intelligent conclusions.”
Bruckner said this is not a question of free speech. He said he will hold Cal Poly administration accountable for the values promoted at the event.
“I don’t think it’s necessarily about free speech,” Bruckner said. “Why is our administration co-sponsoring and promoting a panel with a known white nationalist? Do they think that those ideas are worth debating?”
Other speakers who condemn racism could have been chosen for the panel, argued Bruckner.
“Why does fake news media have to be tied to bringing a racist speaker?” Bruckner said. “Why can’t we bring someone maybe talking about fake news media who is critical of racism? It would make more sense in our political climate.”
Welisch and Bruckner both said that they, along with other student activists, will not let Whittle’s ideas go unopposed Feb. 13.
Other panelists include Alicia Shepard, Cory Black, Chip Visci and Sue Mitchell.