Two outspoken opponents of contemporary feminism, British Breitbart.com technology editor Milo Yiannopoulos and American Enterprise Institute scholar Christina Hoff Sommers, spoke to a packed auditorium at the University of Minnesota Wednesday evening.
The Minnesota Republic, a conservative, student-run magazine at the U of M, invited Yiannopoulos to campus to debate a faculty member of the gender, women and sexuality studies department on the topic of feminism. When no professors agreed, the Minnesota Republic reached out to Hoff Sommers, whose speeches on college campuses often draw protesters.
“Part of our mission here is to encourage diverse political dialogue, so we think that a conservative viewpoint on feminism is kind of silenced on campus,” Minnesota Republic editor-in-chief Anders Koskinen said. “We felt that hosting Milo would be a good way to express a well-rounded campus political dialogue.”
Yiannopoulos, who is often referred to by his first name by his fans, is popular on social media for his brash commentary against the contemporary feminist movement. He made news recently when Twitter removed his verified status after a controversial tweet.
Hoff Sommers is a former philosophy professor who was a well-respected academic in feminist circles until she broke from the pack in the 1990s. Since then, she has preached what she brands as “freedom feminism” in her online video series The Factual Feminist and on university campuses across the United States.
The Minnesota Republic had tight security Wednesday evening, allowing a maximum of 250 people into Cowles Auditorium. Attendees were issued miniature, fake $100 bills emblazoned with a picture of Yiannopoulos as tickets.
A Bernie Sanders bumper sticker adorned the laptop University of Minnesota sophomore Conor Burke-Smith held while in line for the event, but the student wasn’t there to disparage the speakers.
“Part of the reason (I came) was to see the protesters, I suppose, because I know what happened at Rutgers last week. That was pretty interesting, and I was wondering if anyone would try anything like that today,” Burke-Smith said, referencing a now-viral incident at Rutgers University during which feminists and Black Lives Matter activists interrupted Yiannopoulos mid-speech, smearing fake blood on their faces and yelling.
Some attendees were avid fans of the speakers, while others were more interested in the discussion of free speech and hate speech the event has raised.
“I’m pretty moderate…(but) I actually like both these people,” Minneapolis resident Jesse Barker-Booth said. “I don’t agree with a lot of (Yiannopoulos’) stuff; I just think he’s really entertaining, and I appreciate his bluntness.”
University of Minnesota sophomore Alec Wegge attended as a supporter of free speech.
“I strongly agree with the idea of free speech, and I think that it’s ridiculous for people to get overly offended about things they don’t agree with,” Wegge said.
Members of the University of Minnesota’s Students for a Democratic Society chapter took issue with the university’s funding of Students for a Conservative Voice and its affiliated Minnesota Republic publication. The school allocates money to student organizations each year to organize club events, but some say that because the Minnesota Republic invited the controversial Yiannopoulos, the university is effectively supporting hate speech.
University of Minnesota alumnus and Students for a Democratic Society member Skyler Dorr spoke out against the event.
“Because (the event) was paid for with university funds going to their student group, it was by proxy seen as acceptable by the university,” Dorr said. “We’re not saying ‘don’t give them any money,’ we’re saying in the vague, ‘don’t fund student groups that bring hate speech onto the campus.’”
Dorr said he believes that Yiannopoulos’ controversial commentary is, at its core, hateful.
“If you look at his Twitter, all of it is ridiculous. It’s all racist, it’s all misogynistic, it’s horrible. He’s not coming from a good place; it’s not like he has anything constructive to say,” Dorr said. “He is just a troll.”
Event organizer Koskinen said a multiplicity of opinions on a college campus is essential, and Yiannopoulos and Hoff Sommers provide that unique perspective.
“I think it’s important that the university here isn’t all about one viewpoint, and that if you hold a contrary view on issues like affirmative consent, you shouldn’t be silenced because of that,” Koskinen said. “The protest really is a demonstration of how intolerant the left is and how much they don’t understand what free speech is.”
“Bringing someone in like this who brings public attention from outside the university, and within, is a good way to get an articulate message across that catches people’s attention and imaginations,” Koskinen added.
In a press conference before the event, Yiannopoulos and Hoff Sommers echoed Koskinen’s concern that a diversity of opinion is not valued on college campuses.
“We both have a similar discomfort with the… profoundly anti-intellectual atmosphere on campuses,” Yiannopoulos said. “Inquiring into reality, looking at studies, discussing hard problems … The default response to that is hostility, not enthusiasm.”
A few minutes into the talk, three protesters in the audience stood up, shouting and blasting air horns at Yiannopoulos and Hoff Sommers. Cheers erupted when they were quickly escorted out of the room by security guards.
After the speakers began to talk again, a second protester blasted his air horn repeatedly. Some fans in the audience shouted jeers at the man as security forced him to leave. A third group of people interrupted the event when they started to yell, but security guards also made them exit the room.
After the initial disruptions, the auditorium was not disturbed again, but there were reports of protesters attempting to enter the room by way of tunnels that ran underneath it. About an hour into the talk, most in opposition to Yiannopoulos and Hoff Sommers had dispersed.
While the topic of the event itself centered around feminism, it seemed everyone in attendance was focused on whether the First Amendment should even allow such discourse on campus.
“That kind of fringe of trying to shut people down for expressing ideas that are different from you is becoming more mainstream,” Koskinen worried.
Sophie Carson can be reached at email@example.com.