“This garbage about a fee for security . . . it’s a con job,” said Yiannopoulos, a provocative speaker who supports Donald Trump’s presidential campaign and had been invited by the group “Terps for Trump” to speak on campus. He said he doesn’t charge speaking fees and brings his own security. “It’s censorship.”
Yiannopoulos writes for Breitbart Tech and has a large following as a self-proclaimed “free-speech fundamentalist” who has been crusading against political correctness. He was permanently banned from Twitter this summer after he sent a series of tweets targeting a black actress. Yiannopoulos, better known as Milo, is touring college campuses across the country giving speeches, including George Washington University last week, George Mason this week and Dartmouth, Ohio State and Columbia in November.
Because his appearances often generate intense responses, some schools have canceled or indefinitely postponed them. That has led some to complain that his speech is being censored while others say that students are free to invite speakers but that universities should not be required to pay the related expenses.
At a time when freedom of speech on campus is a particularly volatile issue — with debates about trigger warnings, code words, safe spaces, implicit bias, microagressions, free-speech zones, academic freedom, and a divisive presidential election — his events have become flash points.
Yiannopoulos said Maryland’s move was a clear violation of the First Amendment. He said college administrators often slap students with huge security fees for his speeches, “a slippery suggestion that I’m some sort of dangerous figure, when all I do is stand up in glittery tops and talk about free speech.”
The first thing U-Md. sophomore Eileen Walsh thought about when she learned how much “Terps for Trump” would have to pay for the event was a James Madison quote: “I believe there are more instances of the abridgement of freedom of the people by gradual and silent encroachments by those in power than by violent and sudden usurpations.”
“It wasn’t like the university just came out and said, ‘No you can’t have this.’ They just made it impossible for a group of college students to raise a ridiculous amount of money for an event that was supposed to be free,” she said. “They just went about it by the rules and got what they wanted.”
Crystal Brown, a spokeswoman for the university, said the school wasn’t involved in the decision to invite Yiannopoulos or to cancel the event. “As an institution that thrives on respectful exchange of ideas and opinions, we support the fundamental right to freedom of speech,” she wrote in an email.
The cost estimate for the speech that the undergraduate student group was given a week and a half ago was about $5,050, she said, and $2,211 for security for the event. She said school officials found a campus location with lower security costs than the place the group initially sought.
Capt. Laura Dyer, special events commander for the U-Md. Police Department, said as students were planning the event she learned there had been a request from the speaker for the university to provide three to five officers for the event. She said she spoke with a member of Yiannopolous’ security team and discussed roles and responsibilities, with the campus police set to ensure it was a safe and successful event. That’s typical, she said, as speakers often have their own security staff members who are there to protect them.
The university determined that six officers should be present, and the cost was based on the standard hourly rate for the officers, she said.
Brown said one large student group which hosts many speakers gets money from the student government association, from student fees, to pay for events, but Terps for Trump just recently formed.
Yiannopoulous said colleges don’t want to say no outright, “so they gerrymander, finagle, come up with weird strategies to try to damage the event.” The university knew the students wouldn’t be able to meet those costs, he said. “It’s fee censorship.”
Students in Terps for Trump did not respond to requests for comment.
Two of Yiannopoulos’ events this fall were derailed by large fees for security, said Ari Cohn, senior program officer for legal and public advocacy with the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education.
The Supreme Court has been clear that when things such as permits and security fees are imposed on an event that they have to be based on objective, content-neutral criteria, Cohn said; a city could reasonably require security for a street procession expected to draw tens of thousands of people, for example. But his organization is concerned that freedom of speech is being unfairly restricted when they see requests made because college officials “are worried that the content of the speech might be offensive to others who might cause a disturbance of some sort.”
He said he’s especially wary of security fees when they’re imposed, or increased, at the last minute — especially with such a well-known, and known-to-be-controversial, speaker, a tactic FIRE has criticized.
At DePaul University, student protesters swarmed onto stage during his speech in May, and a noose and a message to “F — Mexico” were found nearby. University officials denied a request for him to return to campus this fall.
At Florida Atlantic University in September, Yiannopoulos was planning to talk about “How Feminism Hurts Women.” But a threat of violence was made, prompting a criminal investigation, according to a spokeswoman for the university, so the university postponed the event.
At the University of Alabama, the cost of security was estimated at nearly $7,000, which the College Republicans initially were asked to pay. The university ultimately paid the expense, and the event was held this month with about 450 attendees, according to a spokeswoman.
Earlier this month, New York University canceled his appearance, telling the College Republicans that “on other campuses, his events have been accompanied by physical altercations, the need for a drastically enlarged security presence, harassment of community members both at the event and beyond, and credible threats involving the presence of firearms or explosives.”
John Beckman, an NYU spokesman, said that a speaker’s views are irrelevant and that numerous controversial speakers have been allowed on campus. But the school takes a case-by-case approach based on the “welfare of our community.”
“Looking at the history of events involving Mr. Yiannopoulous, we thought the right decision — for reasons of safety to our community — was to tell the student club that the event cannot be held in campus facilities, the same decision that was reached by a number of other universities prior to NYU,” Beckman said.
Jacob Penrod, a U-Md. freshman, knew he disagreed with Yiannopoulos, but then he started to get worried: “When I read more about what Milo says and the events surrounding different college speeches, I got more offended and outraged. Also I started to worry about the physical safety of students.”
Penrod created an online petition to stop him from speaking at U-Md. which read, in part:
Milo Yiannopoulos is a hate-mongering, right wing extremist. He is sexist, racist, Islamaphobic, and generally hateful. He has written articles calling for the mass deportation of all Muslims from the U.S., said, ‘women’s liberation was probably a mistake’, called Leslie Jones, a famous black actress, ‘barely literate’ and a ‘black dude’.… Hate follows Yiannopolus where he goes, and we do not want that hate on our campus.
More than 200 people signed it, and Penrod met with university officials. “I felt the university heard my concerns and it was canceled because there was not funds raised to address those concerns,” about security, he said.
When they got the cost estimate from university officials, Terps for Trump created an online crowdfunding page to try to raise the money before the deadline.
“We do not wish to cancel this highly hyped event, but at the end of the day we’re a group of college students who don’t have large amounts of disposable income, and if we can’t get any outside funding we’ll have to shut it down,” they wrote on the page, which is no longer active online. “We hope to be able to have Milo grace our University, and can’t do it without you all. If you’re a proponent of free speech, wish to debate him on his points, a Trump supporter, a conservative, a liberal, a libertarian, or just want to see a good ol’ fashioned triggering, please help us out!”
But on Saturday, the campus newspaper the Diamondback reported that the group canceled the event, unable to raise the $2,000 deposit by the deadline.
Breitbart reported that as “censorship” by the university, and some backlash followed on social media, including some people posting on U-Md.’s Facebook page.
Yiannopoulos said he would have an event at U-Md. — not as soon as Wednesday, but before this tour is over. “It will happen. My talk was going to be about something else. Now it will be an hour and a half on the risks to free speech at the University of Maryland.
“I’ll be back whether they like it or not,” he said. “Now I’ll make their life hell.”