Right-wing polemicist and incorrigible troll Milo Yiannopoulos brings his message back to the Golden State Thursday, speaking at California Polytechnic State University for the second time in two years.
This time, he’s joined by two fellow travelers from the broader alt-right/alt-lite internet landscape, Austen Fletcher and Carl Benjamin, the popular YouTube personality better known as Sargon of Akkad.
The trio’s visit comes at a bad time for Cal Poly. In the last few weeks, the school has endured a series of racist incidents, like a white fraternity brother who was photographed in blackface. After that, another racist scandal at a different fraternity led the Cal Poly president to temporarily suspend all Greek activity. White supremacist flyers, along with racially charged graffiti and vandalism, have also been found lately around the campus. Yiannopoulos, who thrives on controversy and courts conflict in his writings and public appearances, may well be unfazed by the atmosphere. It won’t be the first time he’s tossed a match at a powder keg, and it’s unlikely to be the last.
But he and his co-panelists at the event were invited by the Cal Poly College Republicans, who have come under fire from a local paper, the San Luis Obispo Tribune. The editorial board on Tuesday published an open letter to the group, criticizing them for jeopardizing the safety of the student body and the reputation of the school. They argued in the letter that the club should have cancelled the event after the racist incidents darkened the mood on campus out of respect for their peers and their university. Instead, the board writes, they were “unable to resist the impulse to ‘trigger’ the snowflakes.”
“Like elections,” they wrote, “free speech has consequences.”
The Cal Poly Republicans aren’t the only sponsors of the inauspicious event. They’re joined by the Cal Poly chapter of Turning Point USA, a conservative non-profit devoted to carving out more space for right-wing politics on campus. The organization has faced scrutiny recently for allegedly being more involved with elections than is legally permissible, and for what some former employees describe as a hostile work environment for minorities. Turning Point USA has worked with Yiannopoulos before, co-sponsoring his events at other universities around the country.
Yiannopoulos, Fletcher and Benjamin will be paneling a discussion on “fake news” — none are journalists. Yiannopoulos’ credentials on this topic include recently taking a post at infamous conspiracy mill Infowars, and a reputation for emulating President Trump and levelling the “fake news” charge at everything he doesn’t like — his low book sales, for example. Fletcher, who goes by the online handle “Fleccas,” uses his YouTube channel to broadcast videos where he interviews people he disagrees with politically and tries to make them look foolish. As for Benjamin, he deals primarily in the subjective realm of YouTube commentary, with a significant following of subscribers who presumably appreciate him for his opinions, not his expertise in journalism methodology and ethics.
Yiannopoulos has also been criticized for his personal ties to the racist “alt-right.” Though he denies holding white supremacist views himself, a Buzzfeed investigation last October revealed that he repeatedly sought the input of white nationalists while a writer at Breitbart. Video also emerged of Yiannopoulos singing “America the Beautiful” in a Texas bar in front of Nazi-saluting white nationalists, including Richard Spencer.
Likewise, Benjamin has been called right wing and an alt-right sympathizer by multiple news outlets. He rejects those characterizations, calling himself a “classical liberal.” However, a recent Southern Poverty Law Center report revealed he has been a stepping stone for some white supremacists on the path to radicalization. The Right Stuff, an unapologetically racist, antisemitic blog founded by white supremacist Mike Peinovich, hosted a poll asking users who their biggest influence was in coming to the alt-right. Multiple respondents named Sargon of Akkad. And for someone who says he’s not a part of the alt-right, he’s been spending a lot of time with them lately. He’s appeared in videos with alt-right figures like Millennial Woes and Richard Spencer, giving those men a platform to reach his nearly 800,000 subscribers in the process.
Security spending for the Fake News panel may top $100,000, according to the university’s police chief.
Photo credit: David Middlecamp/The Tribune (of San Luis Obispo) via AP Images