Political provocateur Milo Yiannopoulos, who calls himself "the most fabulous supervillain on the internet," is coming to the University of Colorado Boulder. The gay British editor at Breitbart News has gained fame for his gleeful attacks on what he calls political correctness.
Yiannopoulos has made no shortage of controversial statements. To pick just a few, he recently said that, “Dumpy lesbian feminists and shrieking harpies in the Black Lives Matter movement are not persuasive” (BloombergBusinessweek), and, “It’s just a man in a dress isn’t it?” as he projected a photograph of transgender woman student during a talk at the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee. “This quote-unquote nonbinary trans woman forced his way into the women’s locker rooms this year.” (New York Magazine). He was also banned from Twitter for encouraging racist attacks against "Ghostbusters" actress Leslie Jones, who's black.
His visit to Boulder is a part of a college tour named with a derogatory term for gay people. Yiannpolous himself called the tour a "declaration of war" in a podcast with Breitbart News.
That has proven prescient. His lectures have inspired fierce protests at U.S. universities and a shooting at the University of Washington in Seattle. Police told The Seattle Times that the shooter claimed to have acted in self-defense after being assaulted by someone he thought to be a white supremacist. The victim remains in serious condition.
The prospect of Yiannopoulos in Boulder has prompted alternative events for students. Laverne Cox, a transgender actress known for her role on “Orange is the New Black,” plans to speak at CU Boulder the same night. Faculty and students have also put together another event called Buffs United. It will feature songs and spoken word from the CU community.
Even so, protestors hope to stop the sold out Yiannopoulos event.
Students Or National Backers?
Two student groups are behind the invitation: the College Republicans and new a student chapter of Turning Point USA. That second group is part of a well-funded national network of over 1,000 chapters at U.S. high schools and colleges that aims to rebrand conservative values for the Snapchat generation.
Nick Reinhardt, a Sophomore at CU Boulder, first learned about Turning Point at the university's club fair. CU Boulder didn't yet have a chapter. Students from chapters at other Colorado universities had come to table the event.
“It looked like a great organization,” noting their polished marketing that references everything from “Game of Thrones” to “Parks and Rec.”
Charlie Kirk, an activist in Illinois, started Turning Point in 2012 with the help of a wealthy retired marketing executive. Kirk was just 18 years old at the time. The group now boasts over 1,000 student organizations with five campus chapters in Colorado. Reinhardt founded the CU Boulder chapter with the help of other students in 2016.
“What drew me in is it didn’t deal too much with social issues. It’s solely about the fundamental conservative ideals of the free market and limited government,” Reinhardt said.
Once he got involved with Turning Point, Reinhardt said he learned that an effort to bring Yiannapolis to his campus was already underway. After repeated conversations with student leaders and a regional official with Turning Point USA, it remains unclear whether that plan originated with CU Boulder students or someone higher up in the Turning Point organization.
That matters in the controversy leading up to the Yiannopoulos talk. CU Chancellor Phillip DiStefano defended Yiannopoulos’ visit, saying in a statement that the university “works to support our students in their decisions to invite speakers.” And yet those students can't say who originally decided to invite the speaker.
Reinhardt said he was unable to find out if it came from another student or a Turning Point official. Chris Kohl, the leader of the College Republicans, said that his group only signed on to the invite after Turning Point USA had initiated it.
Still, both Reinhardt and Kohl stand behind the invitation. Kohl thinks Yiannopoulos will challenge people’s assumption about conservatives at CU Boulder, where Republicans are a small minority. A 2014 survey found that only 17 percent of CU students across the state identify as Republican.
“By being bold and inviting a contentious speaker, we're like, 'yeah we do have the right to be Republicans on campus,'” Kohl said.
Reinhardt hopes Yiannopoulos doesn't attack any individuals when he comes to Boulder. At the same time, he thinks Yiannopoulos doesn’t always mean what he says; his talks are often just a provocative shtick meant to spark a conversation about what can and can't be said on campus.
Call To Conversation
Students opposed to the Yiannopoulos event aren’t buying it. They say Turning Point can't so easily distance themselves from a speaker they invited.
“TP USA strikes me as a hypocritical organization,” said Charles Wofford, a musicology grad student at CU Boulder organizing a protest.
Wofford points out Turning Point is also behind professorwatchlist.org. The written purpose of the website is to “expose and document college professors who discriminate against conservative students.” Wofford doesn’t understand why some students should be protected, “but when it comes to someone like Milo, who harasses and attacks people, then he's defended on grounds of free speech.”
Protestors at the University of California, Davis managed to stop Yiannopoulos from speaking. Wofford hopes to achieve the same. He has the help of Jordan Buchman, a high school Junior at Fairview High School in Boulder who leads that school's chapter of Students for a Democratic Society.
But their efforts were disrupted when some students they didn’t recognize showed up to a planning meeting.
“I don’t even know if they we’re going to tell us they were from TP USA, because the guy just introduced himself as Nick,” recalled Buchman. “Someone asked, ‘Oh, what’s your last name?’”
It was Reinhardt -- the Turning Point president. They talked for a while before the protest organizers asked him to leave.
Later, Buchman and Wofford said they’d be willing to talk with Reinhardt again -- and have their conversation recorded. Reinhardt agreed and the three spoke on tape for about an hour. You can hear an excerpt of that below:
During the conversation, Reinhardt emphasized that his main goal was to start a debate on campus. Buchman countered that if that was true, then Turning Point should have put Yiannopoulos on a panel instead giving him his own platform.
That led to a request: Turning Point USA does want to have a panel for students to talk about whatever happens during the event. The protesters tentatively agreed to be on it.
But for now, Turning Point USA isn’t a force for quiet political debates on campus. Yiannopoulos is on his way to Boulder and the protest plans are set.