Trolling Boulder

Community braces for controversial speaker Milo Yiannopoulos

The above imagery is the actual ticket promotion art for the Milo Yiannopoulos event at CU Boulder on Jan. 25, 2017.

Feminism and Islam, The Unholy Alliance.” “Why Do Lesbians Fake So Many Hate Crimes?” “Fat Shaming Works.” These are a few of the speeches given by journalist and senior editor for Breitbart News, Milo Yiannopoulos, on his nationwide college speaking tour.

On Jan. 25, Yiannopoulos is scheduled to speak at University of Colorado Boulder, leaving many at CU and around town anxious as to what inflammatory remarks he’ll make about transgender people, Muslims and/or members of what he calls the “regressive left.”

In response, a group of CU students and staff have organized an alternative event called “BuffsUnited,” followed by a talk later that evening from transgender actress Laverne Cox (one of the stars of Orange is the New Black), while others are working to get Yiannopoulos’ talk canceled.

A 33-year old openly gay, Catholic, British conservative of Jewish and Greek descent, Yiannopoulos is perhaps best known for being banned from Twitter in July following racially-charged insults directed at actress Leslie Jones, one of the stars of the reboot of the movie Ghostbusters.

[Yiannopoulos didn’t respond to several interview requests by Boulder Weekly. All quotes from Yiannopoulos are from YouTube videos of his campus speaking engagements.]

Considering himself an “eternal 14 year old” and a “virtuous troll” whose main focus is to ridicule liberals with often ornate and usually profane language, Yiannopoulos was an early and ardent supporter of President-elect Donald Trump’s campaign. His former boss at Breitbart News, Stephen Bannon, is now Trump’s chief strategist and senior counselor.

CU Boulder sophomore Nicolas Reinhardt is chapter president of Turning Point CU, the organization that invited Yiannopoulos, which is part of a national nonprofit dedicated to fiscal responsibility, free markets and limited government, with chapters on over 300 college campuses.

Calling himself a moderate libertarian, Reinhardt points to the “high level of homogeny of the political ideology” at the mostly liberal CU, and says the purpose of inviting Yiannopoulos to campus is to “expose people to all perspectives so that … when they decide what they really believe in, they’re taking into consideration all viewpoints, not just the one that they may hear in their daily lives.”

He agrees that Yiannopoulos can be contentious and admits that “a lot of the things that he says we don’t agree with,” though his “trolly nature” can make politics fun.

With over 1 million Facebook likes, over 400,000 YouTube subscribers, and a packed house at nearly all of his talks, it’s clear that Yiannopoulos appeals to a certain segment of the population.

In late December, 24 hours after the announcement of his book deal with Simon & Schuster, pre-orders of Dangerous launched it to No. 1 on Amazon.

In early January, Yiannopoulos was declared LGBTQ Nation’s 2016 “Person of the Year,” having won almost 70 percent of votes in an open poll. The publication alludes to an orchestrated campaign from his supporters that may have skewed results in his favor.   

Of course, not everyone is amused by Yiannopoulos, as shown by the many interruptions of his speaking events by members of the public who consider his statements to be both hateful and hurtful, especially to marginalized groups.

In May, two protesters interrupted his talk at DePaul University in Chicago by climbing on stage, snatching the microphone, chanting and blowing a whistle, resulting in the talk’s cancellation.

In December, seven protesters were arrested before Yiannopoulos’ event at Michigan State University for trying to prevent attendees from entering the building.

On January 14, protesters blockaded access to a planned talk by Yiannopoulos and former pharmaceutical executive Martin Shkreli at University of California Davis. Citing security concerns, the hosting group, Davis College Republicans, canceled the talk 30 minutes before its scheduled start.

On other occasions, his talks have been canceled after universities imposed last-minute security fees, which hosting groups were unable to afford. Yiannopoulos receives no payment for his campus talks.

Two separate petitions are circulating at CU Boulder in an effort to get Yiannopoulos uninvited from speaking on campus. One of the petitions, which urges CU Chancellor Philip DiStefano to “revoke the invitation for Yiannopoulos to speak,” has over 1,800 signatures.

Buffs for Reproductive Justice and Fairview [High School] Students for a Democratic Society are organizing a protest on the night of the talk.

Reinhardt says he not only supports people’s right to question Yiannopoulos’ ideas, but welcomes the debate. However, he hopes that the opposition can “channel their passion in a way which will challenge Milo’s beliefs, instead of silencing them entirely.”

In early December, Chancellor DiStefano released a statement on the controversy, maintaining that while “discrimination and harassment have no place on our campus … to be a university dedicated to the free exchange of ideas, our students should be exposed to views that are both in line with their beliefs and those that are not.”

In response, over 200 CU faculty members signed a letter to the Chancellor asking that future university communications “differentiate more clearly between free speech and hate speech.”

Reinhardt disagrees with the notion that what Yiannopoulos has to say is hate speech, saying that people may be not be differentiating his snarky “comedic commentary from his political analysis.”

The name of Yiannopoulos’ tour — depicted in large letters on his bus with his cartoon likeness sitting on a throne, golden scepter in hand, carried by four shirtless men — is called “The Dangerous Faggot.”

Yiannopoulos often brings up the fact that he is gay during his talks, making jokes on the topic at his own expense. Is Yiannopoulos using humor to reclaim the “other F word” for the LGBTQ community?

Not so, says sophomore Brady Itkin, student outreach coordinator for CU’s Gay Straight Alliance. “If you’re just being disrespectful and hateful it doesn’t matter whether you’re gay or straight, or black or white, or red or green.”

Mardi Moore, executive director of Out Boulder agrees with Itkin’s assessment of Yiannopoulos. “I think he’s using it for shock value. He’s not reclaiming a word.”

Scarlet Bowen, director of CU’s Gender and Sexuality Center, also doesn’t think Yiannopoulos is advancing the LGBTQ cause, bringing up his remarks about transgender people being mentally ill. “I think that qualifies as hate speech,” she says.

In a December talk at the university of Wisconsin, Milwaukee, Yiannopoulos showed a slide of and derided a transgender student who had recently been featured in the Media Milwaukee school newspaper for filing a complaint against the school after being asked to leave the women’s locker room. Following the incident, the individual reportedly quit school, according to the LGBT online newspaper Pink News.

It’s not just Yiannopoulos’ comments about transgender people that bother Bowen. “Pretty much any member of any protected class that the University covers in its policies against discrimination and harassment, Milo Yiannopoulos has something negative to say about them,” she says.

Few will disagree that what Yiannopoulos has to say can be disrespectful, unkind and even cruel at times, though whether his remarks qualify as hate speech may be up to interpretation. But if it is hate speech, is it against the law?

“In the United States there is no legal category for hate speech,” says Robert F. Nagel, Rothgerber Professor of Constitutional Law at CU (now retired) and visiting fellow in the James Madison Program at Princeton University.

“That means that what is commonly referred to as hate speech is in fact speech that is protected by the First Amendment,” he says. “It is, of course, a complicated question to determine what sort of speech should be considered appropriate on universities’ campuses, but people who think that issue can easily be resolved — by excluding ‘hate speech’ because it is legally unprotected — are operating from an inaccurate view of the law.”

One of Yiannopoulos’ main talking points is that members of the left, particularly “social justice warriors” and modern feminists, are trying to censor him, as well as anyone else using language they don’t approve of or expressing opinions they disagree with.

He points to political correctness, “language policing,” safe spaces, and trigger warnings as tactics for shutting down free speech and, ultimately, opposing viewpoints. As he sees it, the election of Donald Trump is, in part, a backlash against those looking to impose free speech restrictions on others.

As an act of protest following the announcement of Yiannopoulos’ book deal, The Chicago Review of Books refuses to review the book, nor any other book published by Simon & Schuster in 2017.

Brittany Gutermuth, an intern with Rocky Mountain Peace and Justice Center and a graduate student at Naropa, has worked for years on social justice issues, with a focus on fighting racism. What Yiannopoulos has to say is “really counterproductive to what I feel America needs right now,” she says.

However, while she thinks that it’s “good to oppose him and make that verbal,” she also acknowledges that some of the pushback, such as attempts to censor him, might be “making him more famous.”

Yet, Bowen says CU community members’ concerns about Yiannopoulos aren’t “a free speech issue so much as a campus safety issue.”

“When we prepare for him to be on campus, we’re not preparing just for him but for escalated levels of hostility that accompany people who come to his talks,” Bowen says. “We just wouldn’t want anyone protesting the event to get hurt in any way, physically or psychologically.”

“I don’t believe that he encourages hateful behavior,” Reinhardt counters. “Some things aren’t easy to talk about, but we need to talk about them.

“For true ideological diversity, we need to be able to have civil conversations with each other and understand where we’re coming from. It’s hard to express your opinions to people who don’t want to listen to them.”

His progressive politics aside, Brady Itkin is sympathetic to the plight of more conservative students such as Reinhardt. “I know I’ve had Republican friends who’ve felt not only disenfranchised, but felt hated on just as much as the vast majority of my friends in the LGBT community.”

Like Reinhardt, Itkin believes the way forward is through dialogue. However, Itkin also thinks Yiannopoulos is a “nonstarter to that conversation.”