When the news broke that “alt-right” activist Milo Yiannopoulos would be speaking at Cal Poly in January, Poly grad Heidi Petersen didn’t think that asking the university to ban Yiannopoulos from campus for his extreme views was realistic or constructive.
Instead, Petersen wants Cal Poly to do something that she says it has done before: modify Yiannopoulos’ speaking platform from an “uncontested speech” to a “panel discussion” with multiple perspectives.
Petersen started an online petition on change.org—which has garnered more than 900 signatures as of press time—that asks Cal Poly President Jeffrey Armstrong to consider altering the format of the Cal Poly College Republican Club-sponsored event on Jan. 31 at the Spanos Theater.
“The hate he speaks with just doesn’t deserve to be on a stage by itself without being challenged,” Petersen told New Times in a phone interview.
In the petition, Petersen recalls how in 2009, the Cal Poly Sustainable Agriculture Resource Consortium invited controversial author and sustainable food expert Michael Pollan to campus for a lecture. The choice of speaker irked David E. Wood, chairman of the Harris Ranch Beef Company and a major Cal Poly donor. Wood threatened to revoke his financial support for the university if Pollan was given the floor.
“We are diligently working to create a more balanced forum,” Cal Poly President Warren Baker responded to Wood in an email at the time.
Ultimately, Pollan’s lecture was scrapped and he participated in a panel discussion. Petersen argues that a speaker like Yiannopoulos should warrant similar treatment.
“They wanted students to have this breadth of opinions about this controversial person,” Petersen said. “If they could do it for Michael Pollan, then they could do it for [Yiannopoulos].”
Cal Poly College Republicans President Katherine Rueckert indicated that the club is not interested in a panel discussion.
“There will be a question-and-answer period in the format we have planned,” Rueckert said in an email.
Cal Poly Public Relations Director Matt Lazier said the administration will not ask the College Republicans club to consider changing the event format.
“His appearance and how he expresses himself is not something the university can dictate,” Lazier said. “As a public campus, Cal Poly has a responsibility to uphold free speech and provide an open forum for a variety of opinions, thoughts, and ideas.”
Regarding the comparison to Pollan, Lazier said, “While the current administration was not in place in 2009, it is our understanding that Michael Pollan made the decision to join in a panel discussion rather than speak beforehand.”
An editor at Breitbart News and neo-conservative activist, Yiannopoulos expresses extreme views about Muslims, immigrants, and refugees. In an appearance on the Joe Rogan Experience podcast in July, Yiannopoulos said he believes the entire religion of Islam must be “eradicated.”
Along a university speaking tour this year, some of Yiannopoulos’ events were canceled due to steep security costs. He’s spoken at UC Irvine and UC Santa Barbara, and he’s scheduled to visit UC Berkeley, UC Davis, and UCLA this winter.
Petersen’s online petition appeared in an article on Breitbart News. In the article—headlined: “Cal Poly progressives attempt to sabotage Milo event with format change”—Breitbart misspelled Petersen’s name, falsely labeled her as a Cal Poly student, and inaccurately said she was a member of SLO Solidarity, a student activist group.