The Young Americans for Liberty (YAL) chapter at AU sparked controversy earlier this month with the announcement that it would play host to Milo Yiannopoulos, a British cultural commentator and technology editor at Breitbart News.
Yiannopoulos is expected to deliver a brief address on the importance of free speech and participate in a Q-and-A session with students on April 21 at 8:10 p.m. in MGC 2-4.
Yiannopoulos, who is currently embarking on a tour of American universities, is known for his provocative statements about the “myth” of rape culture, his characterizations of feminists as “uglier” than other women, and his role in the gamergate controversy, during which female members of the video game industry were threatened and harassed by mostly anonymous social media users through the hashtag #Gamergate. Recently, Yiannopoulos made headlines when Rutgers University students staged elaborate protests against his appearance on their campus on Feb. 9.
Through a connection with Rutgers YAL chapter president Matthew Boyer, AU chapter president John Nagle was able to contact one of Yiannopoulos’ agents and ask if his client was willing to expand his tour to visit AU.
“It was really kind of a serendipitous thing because I had a previous relationship with Matt Boyer, and I was able to see what he did and connect with Milo that way,” Nagle, a junior in the School of Public Affairs, said. “I did consult with the e-board after the opportunity presented itself. I had a meeting with the e-board and talked through it with them before I moved forward with it.”
YAL secretary Gabriel Benitez said the e-board has not had any open discussion about Yiannopoulos’ appearance beyond notifications about logistical details, such as how many people have RSVP’d to the Facebook event.
According to Benitez, he was initially quiet among e-board members after Nagle announced the Yiannopoulos event to them because he said he could see it playing out in one of two ways: the greatest thing that YAL has ever done, or “suicide” for the club’s image. Benitez said that although the event might have a large turnout, the club should not cement stereotypes about libertarians as racists, sexists and misogynists, all of which he believes Yiannopoulos represents.
“It kind of burns a lot of bridges with some of the other organizations that might have been willing to do stuff with us in the future,” Benitez said. “Bringing Milo just seemed like, for YAL, you know, it seemed … I wouldn’t want to say it was an arrogant move, maybe it was a little too confident in itself. Like, ‘yeah, this is going to bring out a ton of people.’ Maybe it will, but how many of those people are going to be there in a positive light?”
Nagle said he does not expect all members of the e-board to be “a hundred percent on board” with Yiannopoulos’ views or the decision to bring him to campus.
“Obviously he’s someone who’s said a lot of different things that you might not agree with, but the point that we’re trying to stress with the e-board is that we need to have people on campus who push back against, you know, popularly held notions on campus,” Nagle said.
Within minutes of Nagle sharing the Facebook event late on Feb. 4, students from both sides of the aisle, including Benitez, weighed in on the merits of bringing Yiannopoulos to AU. Benitez said he was not surprised by strong student reactions to the event, especially those opposed to Yiannopoulos’ views. The rest of the e-board was not oblivious to that sort of reaction, he said.
“If people get upset about Karl Rove being here, one could only imagine the sort of response that Milo’s going to get,” Benitez said.
Mattison Adele, a sophomore in the School of International Studies, was one of several students leading the charge against Yiannopoulos’ viewpoints on the Facebook event page. Adele, who described herself as being possibly “further left than liberal,” said she knew of Yiannopoulos from Twitter because of his negative interactions with people she follows on the platform.
“I try really hard not to get involved in Facebook arguments, it ruins my day,” Adele said. “So I tried hard not to get involved, but there was some ridiculous stuff on that group. There was stuff like posting swastikas and dehumanizing trans people, so my first reaction is, ‘this is so bad.’ I have to comment and ask, ‘what are you doing?’ You kind of feel obligated.”
According to Adele, she’s been approached about participating in a “SlutWalk-esque” protest at the event, but she declined, opting to attend and face Yiannopoulos with a question. Yiannopoulos appeared at a SlutWalk, a protest movement against rape culture, in Los Angeles last October before being removed by police officers. Pictures of Yiannopoulos at the event show him holding a sign reading, “Rape culture and Harry Potter, both fantasy,” alongside a female with a sign displaying the words, “Regret is not rape.”
Killian MacDonald, a junior in the School of Communications and College of Arts and Sciences, went public about her sexual assault on AU’s campus for the first time on social media when she posted on the Facebook event page, hoping to prevent readers from writing her off as a “crazy conservative.” She said attending the event and challenging Yiannopoulos’ views on sexual assault and rape is important for the AU community.
“I almost want to look him in the eyes and ask him a question and be like, ‘Oh, by the way, I was sexually assaulted, so like, you need to give me this answer looking me in the eye,’” MacDonald said. “The goal of this ‘magic question’ is not to change his mind. I’m not going to accomplish that. But if I can open up one person’s mind in that room, if I can do something good for the AU community with what I’ve gone through, that’s the goal.”
Both Nagle and Benitez stressed their desire to open a real conversation about free speech as well as other issues through the event, especially during the student-driven Q-and-A session. Although Benitez disagrees with Yiannopoulos’ views on women and libertarianism, he said he would still defend the event on principle.
“At least for me, it might be different for the rest of the e-board, bringing him here, hopefully, is not about just pissing off leftists and liberals,” Benitez said. “It’s about, you know, exposing a controversial viewpoint and showing that even though the politics on campus are very … I don’t want to say monolithic, but maybe tyrannical, then bringing somebody like him would at least show that, ‘hey, you guys can’t always have it your way.’”