Milo Yiannopoulos, conservative speaker and one of the voices of the “alt-right,” is scheduled to speak in the Alex and Faye Spanos Theatre on Jan. 31. And while President Jeffrey Armstrong recently stated in an email that Yiannopoulos’s event will not be cancelled, critics say they want to know why he hasn’t been treated with the same caution as past controversial campus speakers such as activist Michael Pollan, who had a panel discussion when he visited Cal Poly.
Heidi Petersen, a Cal Poly graduate and community member, gathered more than 1,100 signatures on a petition that started Dec. 1 advocating for Yiannopoulos to participate in a panel discussion format instead of his scheduled individual talk.
Petersen said she doesn’t want Yiannopoulos to be banned, she just doesn’t see how he can go unchallenged.
“Being an alumni of Cal Poly, I thought that it actually gave Cal Poly the unique opportunity to try and use its Learn by Doing skills by bringing interested parties together and having them figure out a way that you could have this person speak, but in a way that’s constructive,” Petersen said.
She notes on her petition that when Pollan — an American author, journalist and professor at University of California, Berkeley — spoke at the Sustainable Agriculture Research Consortium at Cal Poly in 2009, his event had a panel discussion.
Pollan was scheduled to speak individually until previous Cal Poly President Warren G. Baker received a letter from Harris Ranch Beef Company Chairman David E. Wood, where he threatened to withdraw a pledged $500,000 donation for a new meat processing facility on campus if the university provided Michael Pollan an “unchallenged forum to promote his stand against conventional agricultural practices.”
Cal Poly officials say that won’t happen with Yiannopoulos.
“I realize people are comparing Milo Yiannopoulos’s visit to that of Michael Pollan in 2009,” Associate Vice President and Chief of Staff Jessica Darin wrote in a formal response to Petersen’s petition. “The current administration was not in place in 2009 and cannot speak to all of the details surrounding Mr. Pollan’s visit.”
Linguistics professor Johanna Rubba also wrote a letter to Armstrong expressing concerns similar to Petersen’s. She calls Armstrong’s letter in response to Milo, “disingenuous.” She advocates for sound reasoners to deconstruct his propaganda in full detail, and to do this as an example of logic and critical thinking in action.
“The mission of a university is to support fact-based scholarship and teaching, and to cultivate critical thinking as an essential life skill,” Rubba said. “In our current era of apparent blacklists of federal workers, ‘alternative facts,’ the professor watchlist, and science denial, Cal Poly should not make the current error of confusing fact with opinion and supporting the dissemination of unsound reasoning and outright bigotry. Our universities must be the first line of defense against spurious reasoning, revisionist history, and backsliding into prejudices so many have sacrificed, fought, and died to erase.”
Director of Media Relations Matt Lazier said Armstrong would not comment on Baker’s prior decisions concerning Pollan.
President of Cal Poly College Republicans Katherine Rueckert said she is pleased with the administration’s hands-off approach to Yiannopoulos’ event.
“Compared to other campuses where I think administration has put hurdles to bringing a speaker that can be controversial like Milo, this administration has been hands-off,” civil engineering junior Rueckert said.
She said she would like to believe that the Cal Poly College Republicans are the champions of free speech on campus. They consider Milo a “free speech fundamentalist.”
However, not all of the College Republicans agree with Yiannopoulos, she says.
“Milo represents himself; he doesn’t represent us. A lot of questions have came up about how if we invited him, we must agree with him, and I can’t say that as a leader of a club. There’s people who do and there’s people who don’t,” Rueckert said. “In general, he’s a performer… and that’s what attracts a lot of people. Either if they like him or don’t agree with him, but he’s an entertainer and he’s fun to watch.”
When asked about the idea of a panel forum, Rueckert said, “As much as it’s not up to us to decide what Milo talks to because Milo is Milo, it’s not up to anyone else to determine how the show progresses.”
There will be a Q&A portion at the end of Yiannapoulos’ speech.
Rueckert attended several meetings with the University Police Department (UPD), administration and the College Republican’s faculty advisor Brian Kennelly in preparation for Yiannopoulos. UPD also has plans to bolster security for the event.