British journalist Milo Yiannopoulos made his UCSB entrance atop a padded chair hoisted by student organizers above a standing audience that filled Corwin Pavilion to capacity last Thursday evening. Many were even turned away from his controversial talk — titled “Feminism Is Cancer” — after waiting in a lengthy queue at the venue’s door.
Since February, UCSB’s fledgling chapter of the Young Americans for Liberty (YAL) has touted the planned Yiannopoulos visit as a main event in its free speech crusade on campus. Intent to make a statement about the types of messages welcomed or condemned by their fellow students, group members purposely invited a “no-holds-barred provocateur,” according to newly elected YAL president Dominick DiCesare, who said he was impelled to join the group after the event gained substantial online traction.
YAL cofounder Brandon Morse recently resigned from his position as copresident of the group but appeared at the event regardless. “It’s important for him to be able to come on campus and be able to challenge the status quo, and I appreciate kind of the abrasive way that he presents his message,” Morse told The Santa Barbara Independent. “Whether or not I agree with him, he presents it in such a way that it breaks down the barriers that are traditionally in place that stop conversation from happening.”
Indeed, Yiannopoulos — equally proud in his homosexuality and conservatism — spared few aspects of “intersectional third-wave feminism” in his broad and biting critique of the movement. He claimed most statistics on American labor fail to validate issues like the equal pay gap and suggest that what feminists see as oppression actually derives from inherent differences between men and women.
“Encouraging women to have a job, and have it all, and to do it with kids is making women miserable,” Yiannopoulos told the UCSB audience.
UCSB Dean of Student Life Katya Armistead had an unobstructed view of the event from her seat off to the side of the stage, but she didn’t remain for its entirety. The administrator — who oversees student groups registered with the Office of the Student Life — said that though she recognizes YAL’s right to invite speakers like Yiannopoulos, she personally takes issue with some of the group’s tactics.
“I don’t really understand why it has to be so malicious,” she told The Independent. “I do feel like Young Americans For Liberty goes too far and has brought speakers that go beyond creating the opportunity for dialogue.”
Despite a considerable stir among students in months preceding the talk — especially online — Thursday’s disruptions were minimal. Most vocal were Yiannopoulos supporters, who offered widespread “boos” in response to critics during a Q&A portion of the event. A previous stop on the Breitbart.com writer’s “Dangerous Faggot Tour” at DePaul University was cancelled after protesters — or, in Yiannopoulos’s words, “crazy bitches in Chicago” — rushed the stage soon after he began speaking.
On Monday, The College Fix reported some divisions within YAL’s national umbrella organization regarding its association with Yiannopoulos and his inflammatory rhetoric. Certain politically charged features of the UCSB presentation — like a cutout of presidential hopeful Donald Trump propped at Yiannopoulos’s side — prompted concern from higher-ups like West Regional Director Erin Yeoman.
DiCesare told The Independent that Yeoman’s biggest worry seemed to be protecting YAL’s status as a 501(c)(3) tax-exempt organization, which cannot legally affiliate itself with political campaigns or stances. He’d already planned to reaffirm the group’s neutral position following the talk, “especially due to the nature of the event.”
The chapter president said that though most YAL chapters operate autonomously, he understands the legal basis for the national organization’s objections. “There’s nothing anti-libertarian about choosing what they want to do,” DiCesare said.
Both the inception of UCSB YAL and visit by Yiannopoulos represent the coming to head of free speech tensions that have long been brewing nationwide and more recently found a voice on the UCSB campus. Anonymous chalk messages began appearing across campus in early April, the most provocative bearing mantras like “Black Lies Matter,” “Sodomy = AIDS, Repent” and “Deport them all, Build a wall, But save the tacos,” according to UCSB’s The Bottom Line.
Similar messages in permanent ink penned by the school’s theater and dance building created $1,000 worth of damage, for which the university will seek compensation should a suspect be found, according to Armistead. Chalk as a posting medium is prohibited by UCSB’s student code of conduct, but fines for violation are much smaller, the dean said.
New chalkings appeared last Wednesday, a day before Yiannopoulos was set to arrive on campus. One of the most prominent, scrawled in large letters near the University Center and Storke Tower, read “Protect Diversity Of Opinion.”
Graduate student Timothy Irvine was among participants in a campus town hall meeting following the first wave of chalkings in April, held to discuss the place of such expression at the university. The forum was one in a series of meetings organized in recent months by university administration to encourage student dialogue. Irvine said that though he supports the effort to prompt more student input, the students targeted most directly by “hate speech” like the chalk messages may not be the most willing to engage in discussion.
“If you’re a student whose family got deported, you don’t want to deal with this,” he told The Independent in an interview. “You don’t want to have to see people being like, ‘yeah, build a wall, deport them all, leave the tacos.’ And you don’t want to talk about that either.”
Irvine argued that the content of more targeted chalkings fit even the narrow definitions of hate speech banned by federal law. Armistead likewise said the messages “were teetering into hate speech” and could prompt an investigation under Title IX of the U.S. Education Amendments to determine whether sanctions for discrimination are warranted, if a suspect eventually emerges.
In an interview with The Independent, Morse criticized the university’s formal response to the chalkings, which included a statement from Student Affairs condemning the messages’ “sexism, racism, homophobia, transphobia and intolerance.” He argued that the administration in fact “only condemned one side of the dialogue” when it is not its place to do so.
“Once we start limiting people’s right to speak freely it becomes a very vague line, and the line is established by whoever’s in power at the time,” Morse said of the separation between free speech and hate speech and their expression in public spaces. “And right now one political group may be ecstatic because it’s their supporters that are in power, but it can change over time, and they may not be so happy about these rules and regulations in the future.”
Complaints of student oversensitivity from outside media date back to phenomena like the 2014 “trigger warnings” resolution passed by UCSB’s student senate, which encouraged professors to place disclaimers on class syllabi for content that could trigger anxiety attacks in students with post-traumatic stress disorder.
UCSB alumna Bailey Loverin, the resolution’s sponsor and most vocal supporter at the time, paid dearly in time and energy for a central role in the issue that quickly turned her into a national media scapegoat. A critical article in the New Republic that made UCSB its focal point sparked an onslaught of interview demands from institutions both small and as large as the New York Times and NPR — a bombardment that lasted well into her senior year.
Concepts like trigger warnings or “safe spaces” for students with shared experiences of oppression have been denounced by critics nationwide as forms of censorship or simply coddling. Many conservative or libertarian groups — YAL included — have echoed such criticisms in their activism.
Loverin, 19 when she spearheaded the legislation and now headed for UCLA School of Law, admits to some faults in the resolution’s wording but stands by its core intention. That intention, she said, is to give students like veterans or others exposed to violent trauma control over their mental health through advance warning — not censorship.
“It’s not being PC,” Loverin said. “It’s not saying, ‘don’t say that’ or ‘change the curriculum.’ Reevaluate your use of shock value.”