Murray and Middlebury: What Happened, and What Should Be Done?

Dr. Charles Murray, a political scientist and resident scholar at the American Enterprise Institute,  came to Middlebury last Thursday to discuss his book Coming Apart: The State of White America, 1960-2010.

It did not go well.

Murray was invited by the Middlebury student AEI chapter, and his talk was cosponsored (but not funded) by the Political Science department. The decision by the Political Science department to cosponsor the event was not universally supported on the Middlebury campus, nor even within the political science department itself, as chair Bert Johnson discusses here. Nonetheless, after extensive campus debate, the College administration remained committed to allowing Murray to speak, although they decided that only those with valid Middlebury i.d.’s would be allowed in Wilson Hall so as to prevent outsiders from shutting down his talk.  Despite this precaution, as chronicled in numerous national news stories, Murray never got the chance to present his views before a live audience.

This was not for lack of commitment by the administration to upholding the College’s policies on free speech. At the start of the Murray event Middlebury communications director Bill Burger reminded students about College policies regarding protests and the right of speakers to be heard. Middlebury College President Laurie Patton also took the stage to note that while many – including her – did not agree with all of Murray’s research, the College was committed to upholding its policies regarding the free exchange of ideas.  But when Murray was introduced, the student crowd erupted in a barrage of chants and sign waving designed to prevent Murray from speaking. They chanted, “Who is the enemy? White Supremacy!” and “Racist, sexist, anti-gay, Charles Murray go away!” I was not able to get into the event due to long lines so, after lingering for some time watching the protests outside the event, I went back to my office to view the event on the Middlebury website. However, you can get a sense of just how quickly the event degenerated into mob rule in this YouTube video shot by Middlebury student Will DeGravio.

Additional video can be found on the Middlebury campus student newspaper website here.

After about 20 minutes, when it became clear that the students would not let Murray speak, administration officials escorted him to an adjoining room.  There he was interviewed by my colleague Allison Stanger who pushed back against some of his research regarding the role of race and genes in intelligence and asked him to clarify his views on other issues, drawing in part on questions submitted by other faculty. Students were able to join the debate by asking Murray questions via twitter as well.  The event was streamed live on the Middlebury College website and broadcast to the audience in Wilson Hall, but it was interrupted numerous times as fire alarms were pulled and students continued chanting slogans that were picked up by the audio feed. (It will be posted by the College on its news site sometime later.)

The chaos didn’t end after the interview concluded, however.  When Murray, Stanger and Burger, accompanied by school security, attempted to leave the building and go to the car that would take them to dinner, a crowd formed to block their path.  During the ensuing shoving, Stanger was grabbed by the hair and her neck twisted with such force she eventually went to the local hospital to be treated for whiplash.  (She is home now and recovering.)  Although they made it into the car, the crowd prevented them from easily leaving, with people leaning on the hood and climbing on top. Eventually, after nearly running over a stop sign someone had displaced in front of the car, they managed to break free and head toward the campus location for dinner. When they arrived, however, rumors began circulating that the raucous protesters were on their way to shut that down too, so the small dinner group relocated to a nearby private restaurant, where Murray dined and conversed with more than a dozen Middlebury students and faculty late into the night.

Judging by the dominant reaction online and among most of those with whom I have talked, the effort to block Murray’s speech is viewed as an ugly display of intolerance and violence, one that has made almost every national news outlet, and which has reignited debate regarding issues of free speech and ideological diversity on U.S. college campuses.  At Middlebury, the repercussions of this event are still unfolding even as I write this post. In an email to the Middlebury community, President Patton apologized to Murray and Stanger for how they were treated, expressed her deep disappointment at the reception Murray received, and pointedly noted that “We will be responding in the very near future to the clear violations of Middlebury College policy that occurred inside and outside Wilson Hall.” It seems inevitable that disciplinary action of some sort will be taken against the rioters, although how and in what form remains to be seen. (If I happened to be the parents of some of those students caught on the numerous video recordings of their violating College rules by shutting down speech, I would be worried right now.) At dinner that night after the event, Murray noted that it was the worst demonstration he had ever encountered and that he feared for his safety.  He later tweeted, “The Middlebury administration was exemplary. The students were seriously scary.” Amazingly, in a student-run blog site at Middlebury, someone posted the Orwellian claim that the protestors were the ones who had been assaulted by Burger and others. Their logic?  That they had only blocked the sidewalk and stood in front of the car, but it was Burger and others who were the aggressors in trying to reach the car and drive away.  Thus the protesters were the ones under assault.   (Note. This is not, as far as I can tell, an example of satire, although I deeply wish it was.)

Clearly the student riot has left an ugly stain on Middlebury’s reputation, although it is too early to say how indelible it might be. One alumnus noted to me that while he still hoped his children would attend Middlebury, his wife was now dead set against the idea.  I expect many others feel this way as well. How many depends, I assume, in part on how the College administration responds.  In the short run, of course, the protests prevented those students who wished to engage with Murray from hearing him speak and, more importantly, it prevented them from pressing back against his research.  Two days before Murray’s talk I spent my entire weekly politics luncheon discussing Murray’s research in the Bell Curve, and acquainting students with many of the critiques of his findings.  My presentation was attended by a packed audience of students and local residents, and many of the students went away primed to do battle with Murray.  A few of them, drawing in part on my slide presentation, put together a pamphlet outlining five criticisms of Murray’s argument in the Bell Curve, which they placed on every seat in Wilson Hall.  Unfortunately, due to the actions of protesters, my students never had the opportunity to engage Murray beyond a few questions directed at him via Twitter.  What’s worse, they now find themselves inaccurately characterized in media outlets as coddled, immature “snowflakes” and “liberal fascists” bent on promoting intolerance and hate.

The ability of a vocal minority of students to impose their will on the majority of their peers – and evidently to feel no compunction in doing so – raises some important questions regarding Middlebury College’s central mission and whether and to what degree it is in danger of slipping away. To be clear, as I noted above, not everyone was comfortable with the decision by the AEI student chapter to invite Murray in the first place, nor with the College’s choice not to rescind that invitation. Some of my colleagues felt strongly that allowing him to speak gave him a platform to spread views that they found racist and hurtful, and which many argue are based on shoddy research.  Others disagreed, noting that Murray’s views as expressed in the Bell Curve were not particularly controversial among some experts even when they first came out. Moreover, they pointed out that he wasn’t even presenting that research this time around.  Nonetheless, when it became clear that a group of students were determined to protest, I am told that administration officials reached out to them to negotiate how those protests might be conducted in a peaceful and appropriate manner consistent with Middlebury’s stated policy.  It soon became clear, however, that the protesters would accept nothing less than a complete shutdown of Murray’s talk.  This prompted the administration to develop the backup plan which they implemented when the students’ chanting prevent Murray from speaking.

Note that this is not the first controversial speaker we have invited to campus.  In fact, Murray himself came to Middlebury to give a talk a few years back and was met with no overt opposition. So what, if anything, has changed since Murray’s previous visit? When asked this question by a Boston Globe reporter early today, I openly wondered whether Donald Trump’s election, and more importantly some of the College’s reaction to his victory, may have inadvertently appeared to license the kind of behavior we saw on Thursday. It may be, I speculated, that in reassuring students that we did not support the more inflammatory rhetoric that was a hallmark of Trump’s campaign, some students took that as a sign that speech which they felt was hurtful could and should be shut down. To repeat, this is pure speculation on my part, as I made clear to the reporter.  But something seems to have changed to persuade a minority of the current generation of Middlebury students that if they don’t like what someone is saying, it is appropriate to make sure no one else hears it as well, regardless of whether they would like to.  (Elsewhere I have pointed out that even Trump’s supporters did not agree with all that he said even though they voted for him. However, that distinction has sometimes been lost on a few of my students.)

In my public comments on social media regarding the Murray incident, I have stressed the need for dialogue to discuss why the disturbing effort to shut down speech occurred, and what lessons are to be learned.   But I am increasingly worried that the time for dialogue has passed. It is understandable why some students may find Murray’s research findings offensive, although I also believe many protestors actually have almost no familiarity with what Murray actually wrote.  It is less clear, however, why so many believe that the appropriate response was not to simply skip his talk, but instead to prevent others from hearing him and, in so doing, inadvertently give him the platform and national exposure they purportedly opposed. For some reason a vocal minority of Middlebury students now believes that if they find speech hurtful, it is their right and obligation to act on those feelings by shutting that speech down.

In his magisterial work On Liberty, John Stuart Mill wrote, “But the peculiar evil of silencing the expression of an opinion is, that it is robbing the human race; posterity as well as the existing generation; those who dissent from the opinion, still more than those who hold it. If the opinion is right, they are deprived of the opportunity of exchanging error for truth: if wrong, they lose, what is almost as great a benefit, the clearer perception and livelier impression of truth, produced by its collision with error.

It is necessary to consider separately these two hypotheses, each of which has a distinct branch of the argument corresponding to it. We can never be sure that the opinion we are endeavouring to stifle is a false opinion; and if we were sure, stifling it would be an evil still. (italics added.)”

It easy to blame those Middlebury students – and many do – for not fully understanding the importance, particularly at an institution of higher learning, of the free expression of ideas and the need to tolerate opposing views. (After all, Mill is a dead white male!) However, I wonder whether we, as faculty, should shoulder some – most – of the blame for their ignorance?  Are we teaching students why we hold so strongly to these ideals?  Perhaps if we spent as much time discussing the reason why even speech they view as hurtful should not be suppressed as we do explaining the College honor code, Thursday’s event might not have happened.  If we do not explain to students what underlies the College’s rules regarding speech, how are they expected to understand why their actions last Thursday are viewed by so many, including almost every Middlebury student with whom I have talked, as abhorrent and unacceptable, and why some may face disciplinary action?

For understandable reasons the administration decided beforehand not to respond to the student protest with a heavy show of force, for fear of escalating the violence. To be sure, not everyone agrees with that decision.  But President Patton has made it clear that this type of student rioting will not be tolerated going forward.  Disciplining students, however, is in my view only the first step toward insuring that this unacceptable effort to suppress speech never blights Middlebury’s campus again.  Somehow we, as an academic community, must teach students the reason why when confronted with what they sincerely believe to be hurtful speech the proper response is not to impose their views on everyone else by shutting that speech down. I am not sure the best way to do this.  But, at the risk of appearing naive or hopelessly idealistic, or both, I am committed to trying.  I hope you are too. Let the teaching begin!

308 comments

  1. J Dye,

    “So if free speech shouldn’t be free, who chooses?”

    I want to address a few points you make in that sentence, and in your post at large.

    First, it is important to remember that “free speech” is not totally free. The freedom of expression embodied in the First Amendment, like most rights, is not an absolute right. There are limits on what ideas we can express, where we can express them, and when. The most famous example that comes to my mind is Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes, Jr.’s opinion in Schenck v. United States in which he stated that “[t]he most stringent protection of free speech would not protect a man in falsely shouting fire in a theatre and causing a panic.”

    Second, there are two contexts in which the free speech debate is occurring within this discussion: the nation at large and the Middlebury College community. That distinction is important. In the nation at large, any perceived infringement upon free speech by the federal government would come under intense scrutiny from the judiciary via the First Amendment. On the grounds of Middlebury College, however, those same protections do not apply. The College is not a government entity. So, in theory, the Middlebury College community could decide that “hate speech” is counterproductive to the inclusiveness required for a learning environment and ban that category of speech, all without any judicial repercussions. Conversely, as First Amendment law currently stands, any attempt to ban hate speech by the federal government would likely be struck down, as hate speech is currently protected by the First Amendment. So, context matters.

    Thus, in response to your question of “who chooses,” the community chooses. The Middlebury College community could decide, together, that certain categories of speech do not belong in the community. In the national context, any member of Congress could certainly draft a bill removing the protections for hate speech in the First Amendment. Then, Congress, as the representatives of our national community, would debate its merits.

  2. Ah, the old Oliver Wendell Holmes “shouting fire” chestnut. I suppose it’s worth pointing out that Midd ’11, like most people and especially most leftists who cite it, is turning the meaning of that phrase on its head.

    Shouting fire (falsely) in a crowded theater is a “clear and present danger” to people (the legal standard for certain exceptions to freedom of speech) because they’re in an actual crowded theater, and because fire is an overwhelming immediate physical threat. A speech by Charles Murray, even if it weren’t about “Coming Apart” but about “The Bell Curve,” and even if it took the hardest possible line implied by “The Bell Curve,” is not shouting fire in a crowded theater. It just isn’t. Nobody’s under threat of burning alive or dying of smoke inhalation within the next few moments, or deprived of easy means of getting away if they wish.

    Granted, Holmes was making an analogy to justify a broader restriction. The Schenk case was part of a line of cases in which the US government, failing as it often does to cover itself in glory, prosecuted antiwar activists and others on the left. Holmes may have changed his mind about his position in that case, though, since he dissented in a similar case, Abrams v. US (1919), writing there in defense of the”free trade in ideas” and arguing that “The best test of truth is the power of the thought to get itself accepted in the competition of the market.” Classic free-speech position.

    But even if Holmes didn’t change his mind, note that context again: the US government was prosecuting dissenters ON THE LEFT. It wasn’t cracking down on racists, trying (for instance) to shut down screenings of the pro-Klan “Birth of a Nation,” which then-President Wilson actually praised. If it had been aiming its efforts against ideas at all resembling Charles Murray’s, it would have tried to suppress racist tracts like Madison Grant’s “The Passing of the Great Race” or Lothrop Stoddard’s “Rising Tide of Color.” But no. The government’s targets were people who were the forerunners of today’s anti-Murray protesters.

    Honestly, without the First Amendment, you think the Trump government wouldn’t do the same? Analogizing campus public speeches to “shouting fire” is playing right into the hands of people who would shut you down if they could — shut YOU down, not Charles Murray. The broader the exceptions permitted to freedom of speech, the worse for the left and for anyone who dissents from officialdom or wants to hold it to account. For protesters against Murray, Heather Mac Donald, Ann Coulter et. al. to want speech restricted is just amazingly counterproductive and self-defeating. Those people have more powerful friends than you or I ever will.

    Also, as to whether the First Amendment could be repealed: Yes, although many would argue it is not merely an enactment of positive law, as you’re suggesting, but a statement of underlying natural rights that are “inalienable,” as the Declaration of Independence put it — i.e. still present and deserving of respect whether there’s a First Amendment that says so or not. If that’s the case, then no, the principle it expresses cannot (justly) be repealed. (A private association like a college, however, as I acknowledged above, can set its own rules, as you say, and can set its face against freedom of speech if it wishes. That too would be counterproductive, though, not least because it would damage that college’s wider reputation and therefore the value of its degrees.)

  3. I am very glad you clarified ‘judicial’ repercussions, though I find that rather naïve. Certainly the DOE could send a ‘Dear Colleagues’ letter any day about what exactly is necessary to continue to receive federal funding. Because the government DOES have a rather stark interest in compliance and respect for the Bill of Rights.

    I would encourage my congressmen along those lines. You guys have crossed lines and are not ‘publically’ doing anything to rectify the situation.

    The people who pay the bills are not the children on campus and these parents are also an incredibly important part of the ‘Middlebury community’. I would love to see you sell ‘we no longer believe in free speech on campus’ at the alumni dinners.

    What you and the faculty seem to forget is that Middlebury is a SERVICE industry and ‘tenure’ is not the same as ‘perpetual funding for our amusements’. You need to offer a service that people actually want and value. And by people, I mean ‘parents’.

    Missouri is already down 8% in enrollments because of their nonsense. How many jobs is a loss of 8% of the Middlebury budget?

    The fall out from such stances of free speech such as Ulrich states goes far beyond mere litigation.

  4. Students – Even if you don’t agree with Jeff, I hope you are appreciating the legal history dealing with free speech cases (students from my intro American course are familiar with these, of course.) But Jeff’s point about using free speech exceptions to prosecute those on the Left is a reminder of the point I made earlier – historically conservatives were the ones often pushing free speech exceptions – not traditional liberals. And those exceptions were used (and could be used again) to limit discussion of issues supported by Middlebury progressives.

  5. J Dye – This point regarding the impact of the Murray incident on Middlebury’s endowment and enrollment is an important one. Early (anecdotal) reports are that it has had implications (at least in the short term) for fundraising, and many alumni have said they will reconsider whether to send their children to Middlebury. Whether these are short-term blips or long-term effects will depend in part, I think, on the nature of the disciplinary action and whether the College enunciates a more binding commitment to free speech.

  6. Midd 11, I think everyone’s in agreement that order to fulfill its mission of being a place of learning, the College needs to uphold community standards of civility that are more restrictive than the rules governing speech in the broader free society we live in. I don’t think that’s where the point of disagreement is.

    Rather, to me it looks like the disagreement is about whether the expression of controversial opinions can constitute violence against marginalized groups, and should, as such, be prohibited.

    It would be very interesting to hear your thoughts on this — to what extent do you think the College should prohibit controversial discourse on campus, especially with regard to hosting visiting speakers?

  7. I have addressed each response to my own comment below.

    JEFF SMITH

    Unfortunately, you have missed my point. I did not compare Charles Murray’s talk with shouting “fire” in a crowded theater. In fact, I agree with you: the two situations are completely and utterly different. My only goal in using the example was to show that the right to free speech is not absolute.

    Whether the Trump government would impose restrictions on the free speech of U.S. citizens without the protections afforded by the First Amendment is irrelevant. Neither I, Midd Student, nor any of the protesters of Charles Murray’s talk are advocating that the First Amendment be completely repealed. I don’t think anyone wants that. We are simply questioning whether we, as a community, should address hate speech by removing the protections granted to it via the First Amendment.

    J DYE

    Honestly, I know very little about the federal funding that Middlebury receives. I don’t know whether the federal government could threaten to remove funding for Middlebury if Middlebury was not complying with the First Amendment. Even if the government could remove funding, however, Middlebury is complying with the First Amendment. Indeed, the protesters were complying with the First Amendment as well when they shouted down Charles Murray’s talk. The First Amendment is a prohibition on governmental restriction of free expression, not restriction by private individuals or even a private college.

    While I don’t want to speak for the protesters of the Charles Murray talk, my impression is that they still believe in free expression, but they think that controversial ideas and/or hate speech should be censored to prevent the further marginalization of members of the community. There is a difference between actively advocating against all free expression and advocating for censorship of hate speech.

    I agree that the fallout from the Murray event goes beyond litigation. I have no doubt that some members of the Middlebury community – parents of students, alumni, and current students – will choose not to support Middlebury, financially or otherwise, as a result of the Murray event. I also have no doubt that the conversation that has resulted from the protesters’ actions is a vital one for our community. Even if controversial speakers continue to be allowed at Middlebury, the actions of the protesters were important to voice their concerns and thereby start this conversation.

    DAN ’05

    Perhaps you are right. In my view, however, we should question whether the College should have more restrictive rules governing speech than society at large. Despite the characterization of my views as anti-free speech by Jeff Smith and J Dye, I actually think the College should not only refrain from censorship on campus, but should actively champion free expression. Ideally, I think colleges and universities should provide even more freedom to express views than society at large, no matter how controversial, offensive, or unpopular those views may be.

    To answer you question, I think the College should allow all forms of controversial speech by visiting speakers while cultivating a conversation in the College community about how to address those same speakers. Oddly enough, I think Charles Murray is a relatively tame example compared to individuals such as Milo Yiannopoulos. Despite others describing Charles Murray’s views as controversial, he is an academic who came to Middlebury to debate his views in a measured, calm manner.

    I think the real question comes down to what the College community should do about a speaker such as Milo Yiannopoulos. I understand that Mr. Yiannopoulos has experienced a falling out with society at large and that it appears unlikely that he will be invited to speak at any colleges or universities in the future. However, he presents a particularly difficult problem: could the College community, in good conscience, have hosted a talk by Mr. Yiannopoulos, or an individual like him, on campus? From what I have read about Mr. Yiannopoulos’s talks, he is quite literally, and for lack of a better term, a troll. His talks were merely meant to demean and insult individuals on the campuses where he gave his talks. What’s more, there was little to no academic value to his talks. As a supporter of free expression, this puts me in a dilemma. I can’t call for the censorship of Mr. Yiannopoulos’s talks, as that contradicts my own support of free expression. But I also can’t in good faith call for the College to allow him to speak since I recognize that his talks are only meant to demean and insult.

    I wish I had the answer. I’m interested to hear how you, and others participating in our discussion, would like the College community to address a speaker akin to Milo Yiannopoulos giving a talk on campus.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *