Both the University of Washington and Washington State University are bracing for controversy and protests in January, when a conservative speaker will give talks on both campuses.
In the coming months, the University of Washington will host lectures from an award-winning author, a world-renowned architect, an African-American ballerina who broke the color barrier and a father-son duo from MIT whose works blur the lines between art and mathematics.
But the speaker grabbing the most attention is a provocateur and editor of the Breitbart News Network who has been banned from Twitter for racism and misogyny, and whose talks at many college campuses have sparked vigorous counter protests.
Thousands of people have asked UW President Ana Mari Cauce to cancel a speech by Milo Yiannopoulos scheduled for Jan. 20, the evening of the presidential inauguration, out of concern for student safety and in a plea for tolerance. Washington State University students have also appealed to their president, Kirk Schulz, to cancel a Jan. 19 speech by Yiannopoulos in Pullman.
Both Cauce and Schulz have responded by underscoring the importance of free speech on campus.
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Editor’s note: As a matter of policy, The Seattle Times avoids using the term “alt-right” except in quotes or in stories about the term or movement, and we explain / define it whenever we do use it. This approach is consistent with The Associated Press’ guidance on writing about the “alt-right.”
Yiannopoulos’ appearance — and those of other far-right conservatives at schools across the country — have sparked a nationwide discussion about free-speech rights. His appearance also hints at how campuses may become intellectual battlegrounds between left and right in the years to come.
The UW talk is being hosted by the College Republicans, a student club of mostly moderate Republicans with about 20 to 40 members, said Jessie Gamble, who is its president.
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Gamble, a senior majoring in political science, said she doesn’t agree with everything the Breitbart writer says — she was a Rand Paul supporter before he dropped out of the presidential race. But she likes Yiannopoulos’ message about how colleges have gone too far in protecting students from controversial ideas.
“Mostly it’s the safe-space culture, and colleges babying students,” she said.
Denise Grollmus, a graduate student who has asked the UW’s facilities committee to deny him space to speak, views Yiannopoulos through a different lens. “He loves to upset people — he loves to shock,” she said. “But the things he says are so awful. He has targeted specific individuals with his hateful rhetoric.”
While Gamble says the talk underscores the importance of free speech, Grollmus says Yiannopoulos goes over the line.
“This man, he’s not trying to engage people in any real discourse, or any real dialogue about the issues,” she said. “He’s just shouting horrific insults.”
Yiannopoulos, who is gay, uses a homophobic slur in the title of his college speaking tour. He has, among other things, attacked specific college professors with personal insults, and described “rape culture” on college campuses as a myth.
A petition on change.org calling for Cauce to ban Yiannopoulos has gathered nearly 4,000 signatures. Petitioners say the likely content of his speech would violate a state law that prohibits discriminatory harassment.
Expecting to lose that fight, though, they are planning alternative events to compete with the speech.
That’s similar to what happened earlier this month, when white supremacist Richard Spencer gave a talk at Texas A&M University. A&M President Michael Young — formerly president of the UW — organized an alternative, competing event to show the university’s opposition to Spencer’s rhetoric.
In an interview with The Chronicle of Higher Education, Young said Spencer’s speech “doesn’t deserve a debate or protest,” and called it “beneath contempt.”
The U.S. Supreme Court has repeatedly endorsed a broad interpretation of free-speech rights, even in cases where that speech is hateful or offensive, said UW Law School Professor Ronald Collins, an expert in the First Amendment, in an email.
He cited Brandenburg v. Ohio, a 1969 race-hate speech case, in which a unanimous Supreme Court wrote that speech is protected “except where such advocacy is directed to inciting or producing imminent lawless action and is likely to incite or produce such action.”
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“That is a very difficult standard to meet,” Collins said.
There are only a few exceptions to the First Amendment’s right to free speech, and they involve a “true threat,” where a speaker states a serious intent to incite a violent act against an individual or a group. But it’s almost impossible to make a case for those exceptions, particularly when talking about a speech in a college setting, he said.
Colleges do, however, have the right to set a reasonable time, place and manner for the speech in question, Collins said.
Universities are free-speech areas, and whether I agree or disagree with his comments, he needs to have the ability to come on campus and articulate his particular views. But ... I think we’re very concerned about the effect that’s going to have on the campus community.” - WSU President Kirk Schulz
Alysse Hotz, a graduate student in the English department, said Yiannopoulos’ appearance on college campuses “really signals the renormalization of the particular brand of white supremacy and white nationalism that’s being cloaked now within these broader conversations of free speech.”
She said it sets a “really dangerous precedent for these views to be considered legitimate public debate, when it’s expressly hate speech.”
But Gamble, the College Republicans president, said even some of her liberal friends are supporting Yiannopoulos’ talk, telling her “they don’t like the attitude that you should shut down dissenting opinion.”
She said her biggest concern is that people who don’t attend the UW could come on campus and infiltrate peaceful protests with violent acts. An antifascism movement called Antifa has called on members to shut Yiannopoulos down, although Gamble called it ironic that an anti-fascist group would want to shut down a speech.
Controversy has dogged Yiannopoulos all year long.
His talks at New York University, North Dakota State University and Iowa State University were canceled because of security concerns. At North Dakota State, the College Republican Federation called off the talk because of fears of a violent confrontation between protesters.
After the West Virginia speech, the university’s president, E. Gordon Gee, posted a letter saying he supported the decision to bring Yiannopoulos to campus because, “We never want to censor a person’s right to free speech.”
But Gee also wrote that he “personally condemn(ed) the tactic this speaker chose to vindictively attack one of our faculty members.” During the speech, Yiannopoulos’ attack on a West Virginia professor, Daniel Brewster, included personal insults.
The UW Republican club picked Yiannopoulos in the summer, before Trump’s election and before his Twitter war against “Ghostbusters” actress Leslie Jones caused him to be kicked off the social-media platform. At the time, he asked the UW club to cover his hotel and airfare, Gamble said. Most big-name conservative speakers were asking for $10,000 for a speech, so Yiannopoulos was much more affordable.
Since then, Yiannopoulos has dropped the airfare-and-hotel request entirely — he’s got his own tour bus now — although the Republican club will need to come up with about $7,000 to hire UW Police for security, and to rent the largest room in Kane Hall. That money is being raised privately, Gamble said.
Choosing Yiannopoulos was always meant as a way to raise the club’s profile, Gamble said. “We didn’t intend to be adding gas to the flame,” she said.
“I mean, at the time, we wanted to increase our membership and let people know we’re here.”
She said WSU’s College Republicans club first suggested Yiannopoulos.
In an interview, WSU President Schulz said universities can’t allow some speakers on campus but reject others based on their views.
“Universities are free-speech areas, and whether I agree or disagree with his comments, he needs to have the ability to come on campus and articulate his particular views,” said Schulz.
“But it’s going to be contentious, and his message is pretty divisive and I think we’re very concerned about the effect that’s going to have on the campus community,” Schulz added.
Hotz, the graduate student who opposes Yiannopoulos, says his talk endorses a kind of white nationalism that has started to crop up on college campuses. She called it “frightening, because people don’t realize this is the start of something, that it has the potential to be much larger and more widespread.”
UW spokesman Norm Arkans said the university has received hundreds of letters from across the country urging the UW to cancel Yiannopoulos’ speech. The UW has referred letter-writers back to a post that Cauce wrote in August on her blog.
“A university should — indeed it must — be a place where any policy or idea, even if offensive or outrageous, can be aired, discussed, examined and debated,” Cauce wrote. “That’s a cornerstone of our democratic system, and the University of Washington’s commitment to this ideal is rock solid.”