It’s Gretchen Whitmer vs. Milo Yiannopoulos and the MSU Police.
A week after the alt-right icon appeared at Michigan State University, the interim Ingham County prosecutor is asking the MSU Police to investigate if Yiannopoulos may have committed a crime. And she is calling on the police to provide more evidence that five protesters they arrested committed a felony. Two other protesters were arrested on misdemeanor charges. The Prosecutor’s Office generally does not handle such criminal cases.
Whitmer is calling on the MSU Police to investigate Yiannopoulos for throwing a poster board protest sign, which read “Milo sucks,” into a crowd of protesters. He could face disorderly conduct or assault charges.
“I would be curious if the agency is going to look at that,” Whitmer said by phone. “They need to.”
A video produced by Yiannopoulos and shared on the far-right website Breitbart.com shows the controversial speaker throwing the sign into the crowd. He had been masquerading as a protester. Whitmer said she was unaware of Yiannopoulos’ video or actions until City Pulse brought it to her attention.
Whitmer is also taking on the MSU Police Department by demanding more evidence against anti-Yiannopoulis protesters whom the police want to charge with resisting and obstructing the police, a felony. On Friday, Whitmer announced that she had rejected warrant requests for protesters by MSU police and requested additional information to support the charges. She said the requests were accompanied with no evidence.
“There was a dearth of background information in those reports,” she said. “There was not enough there, factually, to support the allegations and us doing anything.”
She said it was “odd” that officials submitted “not one second” of video of the event or arrests, despite officers' wearing body cameras.
Seven people were arrested during protests proceeding Yiannopolous’ appearance on Dec. 7.
Capt. Doug Monette, spokesman for the MSU Police, said officials were working to provide prosecutors with requested information. He declined to release any information about the five people facing felony charges.
“We won’t release any of that information until they are arraigned,” he said.
Yiannopoulos appeared on campus as part of his “Dangerous Faggot Tour.” He’s openly gay and lectures on the threat of feminism as well as Islam to the West. He is a tech editor at Breitbart.com, which has been called the go-to news outlet for members of the alt-right, a white supremacy movement in the United States. The movement has made headlines since the November election in large part because President-Elect Donald Trump has appointed Steve Bannon, the former editor of Breitbart, to a key advising role in the White House. Bannon has been accused of fostering the alt-right movement with the content the website has published.
Media reports and amateur video from the event show that about 100 people gathered in front of Conrad Hall to protest Yiannopoulos’ appearance on campus with a stated goal of shutting the event down. Yiannopoulos along with at least two others infiltrated the protest masquerading as protesters. He ultimately revealed himself to cheers from supporters.
That’s when he threw his sign into the crowd. The sign, one protester told the flamboyant speaker, hit a protester in the face. Yiannopoulos dismissed the concern with the flick of his hand, his own video shows. Protesters closed in on him and he was quickly surrounded by MSU police officers and escorted from the crowd.
He released a video of his antics during his speech. MLive.com ran a photograph of one of Yiannopoulos’ crew holding a sign he created in the speaker’s hotel room. The news outlet incorrectly identified the man — identified in the Breitbart video as Hayden — as an anti-Yiannopoulos protester. MLive reporter Ryan Kryska declined to comment.
While the video was shown to the capacity crowd at Conrad Hall, MLive and other media reporters couldn’t see it because they were barred from attending and covering the event, raising free-speech questions. Breitbart was the only news organization allowed inside.
The State News, The Lansing State Journal and MLive all reported they were barred from entering the event by organizers from Spartans for Free Speech. Leaders of the student group communicate only through anonymous Twitter and Facebook communications and declined to be identified when communicating with The State News. The reason? The student organizers said they feared retribution for hosting Yiannopoulos’ appearance on campus.
Young Americans for Liberty, another conservative student group, originally sponsored the event, but it announced on the group’s Facebook page in early December that Spartans for Free Speech had taken over the event. Young Americans for Liberty arose from the ashes of the collapse of the student group Young Americans for Freedom. Young Americans for Liberty was listed in 2006 as a hate group by the Southern Poverty Law Center, and the national YAF ultimately withdrew support for the group.
Spartans for Free Speech was formally recognized as a registered student group on Dec. 1, said Jason Cody, MSU spokesman. He said MSU still had Young Americans for Liberty listed at the event sponsor and denied involvement by the Spartans for Free Speech.
Both groups announced on their Facebook pages, as well as on the event page for the Yiannopoulos appearance, that Spartans for Free Speech was responsible for the event.
Spartans for Free Speech did not respond to messaged questions on Facebook, although the questions were seen.
Initially, Cody identified Ross Emmett as the faculty adviser for the group Young Americans for Liberty. However, Emmett said in an email that he is not the adviser, despite repeated reports that he was.
He said he had served as faculty adviser for one of the groups last year, but not this year. “Opponents of the event continued to broadcast my name as the advisor even though I was not," he said by email, "and even Breitbart cited me as the advisor. I have no idea who the advisor is at this point.”
Cody said the Department of Student Life declined to identify the faculty advisers for Young Americans for Liberty and Spartans for Free Speech out of concern for their safety.
Neither group is listed as a registered student organization on the MSU Department of Student Life’s official list of such organizations. Cody said student groups have the option to be listed publicly.
Whitmer, a former state legislator from East Lansing who is widely expected to run for governor in 2018 as a Democrat, said she also had concerns about potential First Amendment violations at the event. She said the refusal to allow local media in was troublesome.
“Either we’re for free speech and a free press, or we’re not,” she said.
Registered student groups can rent various locations on campus for $50 an hour, including Conrad Hall, that are not available to the public. In addition, the groups are eligible to receive up to four uniformed officers assigned to the event at no charge. Monette declined to discuss how many uniformed officers were present at the event.
Cody, said Young Americans for Liberty was charged “about $650” by MSU for security at the event. Tickets for the event were $4 each.
Robin Luce-Hermann, a lawyer who represents the Michigan Press Association, said she was uncertain if the move to exclude local press was illegal. Case law has established that even when a group is taxpayer funded or supported it can under certain circumstances refuse to admit the media. But she said this case was “clouded” because one media outlet was given access.
Under the law, she said, because the group was renting the facility they have “tenant rights,” which means they can pick and choose who gets into an event.
“Free speech is all about the idea of the exchange of ideas and viewpoints, and when you try to limit who participates then that undermines that very aspect of the First Amendment,” she said.
Rana Elmir, deputy director of the ACLU of Michigan, said her group is also reviewing the event for possible First Amendment issues.
“A student has approached us about the situation, and we're looking into it,” she said. “However, issues related to the First Amendment are rarely black and white — facts and context matter and therefore it would be irresponsible to comment before we do our investigation.”