The conservative agitator stirred controversy at American University over his contentious views.

By Elizabeth Lowman

An invitation to Milo Yiannopoulos, the provocative speaker who has referred to feminism as a cancer, sparked a protest on the campus of American University in late April.

On April 21 he spoke on the campus at the request of the Young Americans for Liberty (YAL), a campus libertarian organization. The room was filled to capacity with supporters, protesters and the media.  Most of the supporters were white, and male, but others were also female or non-white.  The rising temperature of the room mirrored the escalating emotions of the crowd for Yiannopoulos, a tech editor for the conservative publication, Breitbart News.

An hour before Yiannopoulos’ speech, students protested outside the event venue, Mary Graydon Center, AU’s main student building. Many of the protesters focused on Yiannopoulos’ criticism of the transgender community in his publication’s article, “I Am So Done with the Trans Outrage Brigade: Why I’m Supporting ‘Drop the T.’”  About 100 students attended the protest, called for by the Facebook event, “Say No to Milo.”

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An American University student addresses the crowd at a protest against Breitbart writer Milo Yiannopoulos on April 22. (Photo: Alejandro Alvarez)

Yiannopoulos, 32, is considered controversial because of his views on the transgender community, Islam, feminism and the Black Lives Matter movement.  Yiannopoulos has said that he does not believe in rape culture, and he started the “Yiannopoulos Privilege Grant,” which says it will award scholarships to white men.

His other speaking engagements have drawn protests on campuses from the University of Pittsburgh and Rutgers University to the University of Minnesota.

John Nagle, president of YAL at AU and an undergraduate student, said before the event, “The reason we’re bringing him is to advocate for free speech and to show that diversity of ideas can occur on campus.” He said that since AU is mostly comprised of liberal students, it’s important to invite conservative speakers as well.

The event encompassed multiple protests, a short speech by Yiannopoulos, a question and answer session, and a meet-and-greet.

Noah Leibowitz, a freshman at American University, said, “Conservative students can make the claim that AU does not host enough conservative speakers, but their true intentions become questionable when their first choice for a speaker is an unprofessional and extremely hateful journalist who writes for the political equivalent of a tabloid.” She organized the “Say No to Milo” protest.  

Leibowitz, who was holding a sign that said “Milo Wants Me Dead,” said in an earlier interview that she “definitely started” the protest movement against Yiannopoulos speaking.

“I get harassed on a normal basis when I’m walking around looking trans … I’ve watched friends be assaulted for being trans,” Leibowitz said. “To me, it’s not even about a political view it’s just the idea of completely invalidating all the violence that we experience regularly.” Leibowitz’s biggest concern was the university allowing Yiannopoulos to speak, she said.

American University was asked for comment but did not respond in time for publication.

Some of the posters around American University’s campus announcing the event included a picture of Yiannopoulos with “Trigger Warning” written on them. One of the protesters, Stephanie Black, silently held a sign that said “Free Speech Does Not Equal Hate Speech” during Yiannopoulos’ talk.  

Black, a freshman at American University and a survivor of sexual assault, said in an interview, “Triggering for me is feeling like I’m drowning when I’m standing still.”  

Student holds a sign reading "free speech does not equal hate speech"

American University freshman Stephanie Black holds a sign in silent protest for the entirety of the two-hour event. (Photo: Casey Ek)

Is speech ever free?

In introducing Yiannopoulos, Nagle referred to him as a “champion of free speech.”

In his short speech, Yiannopoulos, in a British accent, said calmly, “It’s been a very long time since the left, in the wider political sphere, has had someone who simply doesn’t fear them,” referring to presidential candidate, Donald Trump.  He said the left is too powerful. “The left uses isolated incidences in the media to show there is a rape culture on American college campuses,” Yiannopoulos said.  He further accused the political left of “hoaxes,” such as drawing swastikas on campuses to allege racism.

“The year of grievances and victimhood culture in America has got to be over,” he told the crowd.  The crowd erupted into applause.  

After that came the hour-long question and answer session with the audience.  

One young woman was an American University freshman and self-described cancer survivor.  She questioned Yiannopoulos about his “Feminism is Cancer” catchphrase.  “What would you say to my parents?” she asked.  Yiannopoulos responded, “If you can take a dick, you can take a joke,” and then the woman, who called herself a feminist, was booed away from the microphone before finishing her question.

Another woman asked a question about so-called social justice warriors. “How can we eradicate this disease that is an SJW syndrome? I know that gassing people has always been a historically perfect way.” Yiannopoulos thanked her for the question and responded that he understood it was difficult to “go up against the wall of fact-free nonsense.” He recommended debating with facts and “triggering them into high hell.”

Several of the questions addressed Yiannopoulos’ stance on Islam. He responded that he did not think you can have Islam in America and supports Trump’s immigration policies.  

Others questioned Yiannopoulos about his hair care, feelings for Trump and identity as a gay conservative. One fan even bought Yiannopoulos a pack of his favorite brand of cigarettes.

After Yiannopoulos had wrapped up the last question, a protester took the microphone and asked him why he equated the Black Lives Matter movement with “black supremacy.”  The protester was escorted out by public safety.

Yiannopoulos refused to answer the question. After the event, he hosted a meet-and-greet with the attendees.  

“What the Black Lives Matter movement is doing is telling the establishment, telling the American government, that black lives do matter,” said the protester after the event. He was Othniel Harris, the vice-president of the American University Black Student Alliance. “We’re asking for inclusion into American life.”  

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After the event, a racially offensive post appeared on the social media app Yik Yak referencing the black protesters.

Yiannopoulos was contacted for comment, but he did not respond in time for publication.

Contributing: Genevieve Kotz