Inflammatory and Turned Away

Breitbart editor Milo Yiannopoulos is touring college campuses across America, and some universities have shut him out because of his rhetoric against groups too numerous to list.

October 21, 2016
 
Students at DePaul took the stage to protest Milo Yiannopoulos.

Milo Yiannopoulos may be best known for publishing alt-right crusades against feminism and liberal ideologies on Breitbart News. Or maybe he’s better known for being banned from Twitter after provoking his followers into harassing comedian Leslie Jones. Perhaps his internet fame was sparked when he called himself, a conservative gay man, “the most fabulous supervillain on the internet.”

Lately, the technology editor for Breitbart has been drawing attention for something else: the controversies surrounding his college campus tour, which he dubbed the Dangerous Faggot Tour with his characteristic attempt to provoke. His inflammatory speeches led to protests over the past academic year, and this year he's on something of a roll with his incendiary statements -- and a number of colleges are calling off planned appearances.

Yiannopoulos has said that his tour explores the social justice movement, “ultimately with the view to figure out how to stop it.” And some who disagree with his views are among those concerned that he's being blocked from some of his campus appearances.

Most recently, at his Tuesday talk at Clemson University, he encouraged audience members to celebrate “World Patriarchy Day” on his birthday, an idea that brought cheers from his fans in the crowd.

Today, Yiannopoulos will speak at George Washington University in an event sponsored by the college Republican group there. Instead of calling on the university to cancel the event, GW student Stefan Sultan wrote a column in the student newspaper stating that Yiannopoulos should abstain from hate speech during his visit.

Sultan wrote, “Yiannopoulos should be allowed to come to GW, but he shouldn't be allowed to target minorities within our student population. Before Yiannopoulos comes, he should assure students and administrators that he will not actively engage in hate speech at GW.

“Bringing a speaker to campus who defends free speech is admirable enough, as the protection of free speech is certainly necessary, but Yiannopoulos's history of hate speech suggests that his appearance could very well spark bigotry and hatred among students. Why should the poster child for alt-right intolerance be allowed to come to campus and use the university as a platform to spew racist, sexist, Islamophobic and transphobic rhetoric?"

In an emailed statement to Inside Higher Ed, Yiannopoulos was not deterred.

"The left uses the term 'hate speech' to fight any speech they don't care for," he said. "The students trying to control free speech at George Washington University should grow up."

Ultimately, GW did not impose any speech limits on Yiannopoulos, A university spokesman said in a statement, "The university supports the rights of individuals to express their opinions even when the speaker is controversial. The presentation of an event such as this implies no endorsement of the speaker's views."

Sultan's suggestion is milder than decisions made by other universities, some of which stopped Yiannopoulos' visits entirely.

  • This week, New York University announced that it was canceling a talk Yiannopoulos was scheduled to give in November. The event was canceled because of "concerns … about the safety and well-being of our community," Marc Wais, senior vice president of student affairs, wrote in an email to NYU College Republicans. In addition, he wrote, "For example, the proposed venue in this case is proximate to the Islamic Center, the LGBTQ Student Center and the Center for Multicultural Education and Programs," organizations that include students who are "subjects of Mr. Yiannopoulos’s attacks."
  • The University of Miami College Republicans canceled Yiannopoulos’s speech in June after meeting with university staff members about operations and logistics of the event. Hosting Yiannopoulos would ultimately be too expensive, the group’s president said in the student newspaper.
  • At Florida Atlantic University, Yiannopoulos’s September visit was “postponed” due to a threat of violence, said a university spokesperson. The threat was directed toward someone at FAU, not Yiannopoulos, but was related to his visit and subsequently prompted a criminal investigation.
  • Although there were reports that Villanova University canceled Yiannopoulos’s event in September, his talk was never approved by the administration before it was prematurely publicized, said a spokesperson. Ultimately, the College Republicans group that had initially reached out to Yiannopoulos decided not to follow through with the event.
  • When Yiannopoulos visited DePaul University, protesters walked on stage to taunt him and interrupt his talk, and the university then “denied a request” for him to return to campus in the fall, said DePaul spokesperson Carol Hughes. “It was the university’s opinion that Mr. Yiannopoulos’s words and behavior contained inflammatory speech, contributed to a hostile environment and incited similar behavior from the crowd in attendance,” Hughes wrote in an email. “It also was clear that it would not be possible for DePaul to provide the security that would be required for such an event.”

The GW College Republicans aren’t planning on canceling Yiannopoulos’s visit today. In the past month, however, they decided to open the event to GW students only -- previously the talk was listed as open to the public.

“This was done for security purposes [and] because there was high student demand,” said Allison Coukos, director of public relations for the group.

The College Republicans are covering the cost of 12 university police officers, Coukos said. The group did not have to pay for Yiannopoulos’s talk.

Although other universities have called off Yiannopoulos talks because of security concerns, some are skeptical of this excuse.

"Security must be imposed because of clear and objective criteria," said Ari Cohn, an attorney at the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education. "A lot of times universities cancel events not because of objective criteria but because people are offended."

It's true, not everyone is thrilled when universities let Yiannopoulos speak.

But some on campus are actively supporting the College Republicans’ decision to invite Yiannopoulos.

“Those who oppose his right to speak on campus -- it’s a novel PC convention,” said John Banzhaf, professor of public interest law at GW.

The First Amendment protects Yiannopoulos’s right to speak at universities, even if that includes hate speech, Banzhaf said. Speech is only illegal under a specific circumstance: if it is deliberately meant to incite immediate harm.

Public universities are bound to follow First Amendment law, and private universities often have free speech policies in place. At GW, which is private, rules on student-sponsored forums are included in the Guide to Student Rights and Responsibilities: “Students must recognize their responsibility to uphold the right of free speech and to permit invited speakers to appear and speak without inappropriate interruption or demonstration. The members of the university community are urged to hear all sides of controversial issues represented.”

Cohn says that universities’ obligation to host controversial speakers is an ethical one, too.

“It’s incumbent on administrators to not cut off debate and discussions because people are offended by them,” Cohn said. “Nobody is being forced to go hear the speaker. In fact, students who are offended and disagree with the viewpoint should seek out the speaker to raise questions and try to them prove them wrong. It’s an intellectual exercise.”

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