In the spirit of free speech, Pitt’s Student Government Board passed the microphone Tuesday to a line of students speaking out about a controversial speaker whose visit SGB partially funded.
At its public meeting in Nordy’s Place, students packed the William Pitt Union’s multipurpose room to speak their piece on Milo Yiannopoulos’ lecture Monday evening. The Board released a statement earlier in the day defending its allocations decision and inviting students to “share their perspectives” at the meeting.
Yiannopoulos, a controversial conservative writer and activist who tours colleges to speak about the need for free speech, spoke at Pitt Monday evening to a crowd of about 350 students, some of whom protested the lecture. The Board had allocated funding to Pitt College Republicans, who had invited Yiannopoulos to campus.
During his talk, Yiannopoulos called students who believe in a gender wage gap “idiots,” declared the Black Lives Matter movement a “supremacy” group, while feminists are “man-haters.”
The Board said in a release earlier on Tuesday that it understood and empathized with students who were offended by Yiannopoulos’ talk, but that it had a duty to “fairly represent the voice of all students in the allocations funding process.”
In the release, the Board said it must follow the precedent set in the U.S. Supreme Court case Board of Regents of the University of Wisconsin System v. Southworth, saying a student governing body must “operate under the principle of viewpoint neutrality.”
According to Board member Jack Heidecker, when SGB considers funding for allocations, it must take a neutral stance and cannot consider the content of the speaker. Despite its legal binding, the Board apologized to the students who were hurt from the speech.
“Just because we have to be neutral with our funding doesn’t mean we’re personally neutral — we feel strongly about these things,” Heidecker said. “I hurt yesterday, too.”
SGB President Nasreen Harun amended the agenda at the meeting to allow for more time for student comments.
According to Pitt police, who do not normally attend Board meetings, about 125 people attended Tuesday’s meeting.
Board member Everett Green said, in his three semesters on the Board, this was the first time he had seen a student response of this magnitude at a meeting.
More than 15 students expressed their concerns at the meeting, focusing on issues of diversity and inclusion at Pitt, particularly in terms of race and sexual identity.
Marcus Robinson, president of Pitt’s Rainbow Alliance, said after leaving the lecture on Monday, he felt unsafe on campus for the first time.
“So many of us shared in our pain. I felt I was in danger, and I felt so many people in that room were in danger. This event erased the great things we’ve done,” Robinson said. “For the first time, I’m disappointed to be at Pitt.”
Robinson suggested that the University should have provided counselors in a neighboring room to help students who felt “invalidated” or “traumatized” by the event.
Other students suggested that the Board research the speakers before it makes an allocations decision or warn students if the speaker will contain content that could be racist or violent or focus on rape and sexual assault. In response to the lecture, students expressed interest in holding a committee to discuss how to prevent future issues.
Board member Lia Petrose said one solution would have been to form a coalition of leaders from student groups before the event to discuss potential concerns, in light of protests at other universities in response to visits from Yiannopoulos.
While SGB focused on the issue of championing free speech in its release, students argued the lecture was “hate speech” and should not follow the same rights.
“This is more than hurt feelings, this is about real violence. We know that the violence against marginalized groups happens every day in this country. That so many people walked out of that [event] feeling in literal physical danger is not alright,” Claire Matway, a social work and urban studies major, said.
Tim Nerozzi, the president of College Republicans and a junior at Pitt, said SGB did not pay Yiannopoulos to speak at Pitt but did fund his hotel and part of his travel expenses.
“I’m not here to rain on your parade. We put a trigger warning on our fliers for the event. We never claimed it would be a family friendly or a politically correct lecture,” Nerozzi said.
Nerozzi, who is an opinions columnist at The Pitt News, said while he understands it is a “messy issue” and does not agree with all of Yiannopoulos’ values, he does believe in the free speech ideal.
“I do realize that some people were genuinely hurt, and I’m not going to ignore that,” Nerozzi said. “But free speech should not trump safety. We need to see the school work around that.”
In response to student comments, Harun said, with teary eyes, said the best way to make an impact on campus was to begin conversations like this with the Board.
“Now is a good time talk about [amending the allocations manual]. It starts here and we can take it from there,” Harun said. “We’re very sorry people are feeling the way they are and it was not intended … and we’re sorry people are not proud to be at Pitt.”
Steve Anderson, associate dean and director of residence life, told students that he appreciated their comments and was prepared to work with students moving forward.
“We encourage you to please help us make this campus the campus you want it to be,” Anderson said.
Kenyon Bonner, vice provost and dean of students, said the University does not agree with most of Yiannopoulos’ values, and when students express concerns similar to the ones students shared at the meeting, the University will “intervene swiftly.”
“The best defense against speech you disagree with is more speech,” Bonner said. “Students have the right to bring speakers of their choice, but with that right comes responsibility.”
The Institute of Industrial Engineers requested $1,601.60 to attend a conference. The Board approved the request in full.
Panther Women’s Rugby Club requested $1,354.84 to compete in a tournament. The Board approved $1,218.28 and denied $136.56.
The African Students Organization requested $6,466.27 to host a festival. The Board approved $5,987.92 and denied $478.35.
Collegiate DECA requested $5,000 to attend an international career conference. The Board approved $4062.50 and denied $937.50.
Men’s Ultimate Frisbee requested $3,054.27 to compete in a tournament at Stanford. The Board approved $3,054.25 and denied $0.02.
Panther Swim Club requested $4,500 to compete in a national tournament. The Board approved $4,102 and denied $398.
The Brazilian Student Association requested $2,931.98 to host a Brazilian festival. The Board approved $2,881.98 and denied $50.