On Wednesday, the University of Colorado Boulder will host three events: a talk by alt-right figure Milo Yiannopoulos, a talk by actor Laverne Cox and a Buffs United event celebrating diversity at CU. These events are all parts in a web of controversy on campus.
The most talked-about and controversial is the Yiannopoulos talk, scheduled for 7 p.m. in Math 100. Yiannopoulos is a prominent figure in the alt-right movement and has written and edited for conservative media outlet Breitbart News. The alt-right political movement has been described as a mix of racism, white nationalism and populism.
Yiannopoulos has had his events canceled by multiple universities in 2016 for security concerns and for concerns of creating a hostile environment on campus. He was also banned from Twitter in July for inciting remarks about black actor Leslie Jones.
Yiannopoulos’ long resume has created a debate amongst the campus community. Many people were hoping to cancel the event, with two separate change.org petitions started by CU students gathering more than 2,200 signatures as of Tuesday. The chancellor’s office had no comment about the petitions in December.
A group of more than 200 graduate students and 225 faculty also delivered a petition and a letter, respectively, to the chancellor’s office asking for an alternative event to take place on Jan. 25 along with Yiannopoulos’.
The Breitbart editor is known for inflammatory incidents at his events. Yiannopoulos, a gay man, identified a transgender student by name and held up her picture at a talk at the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee Dec. 13. He mocked her gender transition process, saying, “The way that you know he’s failing is I’d almost still bang him.” Yiannopoulos likely did not know she was in the audience. The rest of the room did not recognize her.
CU Boulder’s administration has been aware of those events, said Ryan Huff, spokesperson for CU. Yiannopoulos’ CU event was announced on Nov. 30.
“The administration is familiar with what the speaker has done at other campuses, including the University of Wisconsin and West Virginia University,” Huff said. “As we’ve said all along, we believe civil discourse is the best way to have a debate — not personal attacks against individuals.”
Chancellor Philip DiStefano has addressed the issue directly and indirectly in two columns over the past two months, saying the campus should “take a stand against discrimination” but also embrace free speech and “different viewpoints.”
CU organized Buffs United, scheduled for 5 p.m. in Old Main, as an alternative event featuring poetry, speakers, music and dance that students could participate in. An organizer for the event, Sam Flaxman, said Buffs United was at least partly inspired by happenings at Texas A&M, where an alternative event, Aggies United, was provided a counter to white nationalist Richard Spencer talking on that campus.
“[T]he organizers of #BuffsUnited do not see the Jan. 25 event in Old Main as a ‘counter’ event,” Flaxman said. “We think the messages of the speakers and performers stand on their own, and we welcome any members of the CU community.” The majority of speakers and performers are students.
Buffs United was created with input from some of the graduate students and faculty who wrote the chancellor’s office in December, Flaxman said. Campus leadership promised support on creating an alternative event in a set of response letters that month.
“There is some overlap between those groups, but the #BuffsUnited planning group truly grew organically to include a range of students, faculty and staff from across campus,” Flaxman said. “The planners have tried hard to reach out to many student groups and offices on campus over the past month. That outreach has been largely independent of the letter and petition.”
The first 100 students at the Buffs United event, that have eligible student IDs available, will also receive tickets to the Cox event. There was no formal collaboration between these two events. Instead, the Buffs United organizers were able to purchase large group seating and decided to hand the tickets for free.
Cox’s talk, scheduled for 7:30 p.m. in Macky Auditorium, was not planned as an alternative event, according to Maura Towey, chair of the student-run Distinguished Speakers Board. Towey said it’s been called an alternative event, but that was not the intention of DSB or the student-run Cultural Events Board, which organized the event with DSB. Cox, a black transgender woman, was aware of Yiannopoulos’ talk, Towey said.
“We originally hoped for March, however, Laverne’s limited availability then limited us to the months of January or May. Macky Auditorium was flexible on the nights of [Jan. 25, 26 and 31], and May was undesirable. We highly preferred the [Jan. 31], but in the end, it was Laverne’s decision and she chose [Jan. 25],” Towey said.
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