USA First Look

UC Davis: Protests shut down controversial speakers

Protesters gathered at UC Davis Friday night to condemn speeches from right-wing commentator Milo Yiannopoulos and pharmaceutical executive Martin Shkreli, prompting a last-minute cancellation.

Former pharmaceutical chief Martin Shkreli speaks on Capitol Hill in February 2016.
Susan Walsh/AP Photo/File
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Colleges now face steeper barriers, including a larger bill for security, if they want to invite a controversial speaker to campus.

Protesters at the University of California, Davis gathered Friday night to condemn a speech by controversial right-wing gay commentator Milo Yiannopoulos, prompting the organizer to cancel the talk even before it started. 

The UC Davis College Republicans, who had organized the event, canceled the speeches by Mr. Yiannopoulos and pharmaceutical executive Martin Shkreli half an hour before they were scheduled to begin, citing security concerns. 

The university administration, which had defended the event in the days leading to the speeches, citing freedom of speech and its importance for higher education, expressed disappointment at the protests and cancelation. 

“Our community is founded on principles of respect for all views, even those that we personally find repellent," said UC Davis Interim Chancellor Ralph Hexter after the cancellation. "As I have stated repeatedly, a university is at its best when it listens to and critically engages opposing views, especially ones that many of us find upsetting or even offensive."

Mr. Yiannopoulos is a gay British conservative who aligns with the "alt-right" movement, a largely-online movement rooted in white nationalist sentiment that emerged onto national political scene during President-elect Donald Trump’s campaign.

He said in a Facebook post that the program was cancelled after "violence from left-wing protesters." He did not tweet, having been permanently banned from Twitter in July for inspiring his followers to attack comedian Leslie Jones with hate tweets.

But the university said in a statement, "Despite some reports, there were no broken windows or other property damage during the protest. Earlier in the evening, one person was arrested inside the venue. No further arrests were made," reported CNN.

The incident underscores the challenges many US universities encounter in protecting freedom of speech. 

In November, thousands of Harvard students were planning a peaceful protest for former Breitbart executive chair Steve Bannon, but the chief White House strategist for President-elect Donald Trump cancelled his appearance the day before the event. 

Similarly, Yiannopoulos’ speeches on college campuses – as part of his “Dangerous [homophobic slur] Tour” – have incited protests and violence wherever he goes. Seven people were arrested at Michigan State University, while DePaul University banned him from returning since protesters took over the stage and hit him in the face during his event in May. Quoting “physical altercations” at his events, New York University also cancelled in October.

But unlike private universities that can simply bar speakers, many public universities have struggled to pay for the security and, therefore, have had to rescind the invitations. North Dakota State University was one of them. The student organizers canceled the event scheduled for Dec. 16. 

Similarly, a conservative student group at Iowa State canceled Yiannopoulos’s event there after an extra $1,900 was billed for security. 

At UC Berkeley, despite emails from students demanding the event be canceled, the liberal campus will host the conservative provocateur on Feb. 1. With protest planning already underway, the university asked the student hosts to help pay for security, which is expected to cost between $7,500 and $10,000 for seven officers. 

Rebutting speculations, UC Berkeley spokesman Dan Mogulof said the high security fees were not set with the intention to block the event

“Even if there were a specific threat (of disruption), that would not be grounds to cancel the event,” he told the San Francisco Chronicle. “What would be grounds to cancel would be if the speaker said, ‘I’m going to come to your campus and break the law.’ ”

Material from the Associated Press was used in this report.