Where Credit Is Due: Middlebury Alumni Stand Up for Free Speech


One of my go-to websites is RealClearPolitics; every day its compilation of editorials, op-eds and longer polemics contains a raft of worthy articles. If you’re not checking it out, you should be.

Case in point. On May 30 RCP published Richard Cohen’s meditation on the punishments Middlebury meted out to the anti-free speech bullies it has nurtured at its bosom, Campus Muzzling Leaves its Mark. Cohen is mildly supportive of the college’s listless response to the violence wrought unto the First Amendment by its wards. I was moved to comment:

Pay attention to Middlebury’s response, which exemplifies higher ed’s stance on the free speech “problem”: put it behind you as fast as you can. Contrast this to the way college administrators spring into action after an alleged (no one ever waits to see if the allegations are true) racial incident: workshops are scheduled, classes are cancelled, safe spaces designated, lavish promises of greater funding for black-only interests, and the usual obsequious letter from the president. If higher ed were truly serious about protecting the precious freedom of unfettered speech–don’t you think there should be even one tenth of the energy devoted to “racism” given over to teaching students to be free speech “allies”?

Perhaps I should change the name of this blog to “Call Me Cassandra,” because what should appear today on RCP but a wonderful, soul-warming, praise-God-there-is-hope-after-all letter from a group of Middlebury alums, all academics themselves. The letter makes the same point my comment did, without the snidery.

Disputation

Scholars worthy of the name dispute the outcomes at Middlebury.

We write as grateful alumni of Middlebury College who were inspired by our education there to become professors….We are saddened that the college has failed to seize an opportunity to firmly defend these foundational principles. The stakes now are heightened because students nationwide are rejecting freedom of expression and embracing a new version of the heckler’s veto.

Middlebury’s response thus far is simply insufficient to address the current threats to higher education, free expression, and reasoned discourse. When The Wall Street Journal published a statement – signed by over 100 faculty members at Middlebury – defending these core principles, 151 Middlebury students issued a point-by-point response. Their response demonstrates that they, like many students nationwide, equate Murray’s speech with violence, and think a belligerent response was justified. Murray had no right to speak, they contend, because “[o]ppressive language does more than represent violence; it is violence.” And the students’ own actions preventing Murray from speaking, they said, actually “defend[ed] the integrity of reasoned and civil discourse.”

This view is self-evidently wrong. Shouting down a speaker – to say nothing of setting off fire alarms or committing assault – is not “defending” reasoned discourse. The appropriate response to Murray’s lecture event, which by design featured his commitment to take questions and hear objections, would be an argument in kind. A special place for such important exchanges of views used to be known as a college or university.

President Laurie Patton now should take additional measures to demonstrate that Middlebury College fully embraces free intellectual inquiry and the welcoming of diverse views on the campus.

First, while federal law limits the information that can be released about an individual student, Middlebury has no restrictions either in law or policy that prevent it from providing a more informative summary of the judicial decisions and actions it has taken. Greater transparency would underscore the college’s commitment to enforcing its policies on freedom of expression and thought.

Second, the membership of [a] newly named committee [to ‘explore and discuss’ what happened] should be reconsidered to provide more balanced representation…[I]t includes two faculty members who signed a statement defending the students’ actions and one student who signed the response equating offensive speech with violence. A committee so constituted is unlikely to mount a vigorous attack on censorship or recommend a reaffirmation of core educational principles. Further, the committee must confront difficult issues. Are current free-speech policies and disciplinary procedures adequate, or do other institutions have more effective models? How should a university react to masked protesters in an educational setting, given recent precedents at Middlebury and elsewhere that masks portend violent enforcement of a heckler’s veto?

Third, the college should organize a speaker series in 2017-18 on freedom of speech and intellectual diversity. The series should encompass both speakers who favor traditional liberal views on freedom of speech, and those favoring the newer view that allows certain individuals and groups to veto a speaker who allegedly imperils diversity and inclusion. The president should clearly announce, however, that the ground rules for this series reflect the current college policy, stated vigorously: that students who disrupt any of the presentations will suffer serious consequences.

Finally, Middlebury should endorse the Report of the Committee on Free Expression issued by the University of Chicago in 2015, as many other educational institutions have done. The college has so far been reluctant to state that it will not ‘restrict debate or deliberation because the ideas put forth are thought to be offensive, unwise, immoral, or wrong-headed’ – and that ‘[a]lthough faculty, students and staff are free to criticize, contest and condemn the views expressed on campus, they may not obstruct, disrupt, or otherwise interfere with the freedom of others to express views they reject or even loathe.’

The statement is signed by six faculty from various institutions, mostly from the South and West–one is from Swarthmore. None is from New England. Go figure. I’d call them “courageous,” but since they all have tenure, courage doesn’t apply.

For the first time in my adult life, I am really proud that I spent a career in higher education.

steinbeck pig

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4 thoughts on “Where Credit Is Due: Middlebury Alumni Stand Up for Free Speech

  1. I know this will come as a shock to you, but I take a far more cynical view. It’s pretty easy to wave the flag and shout, Charge!” when you’re well behind the front lines. Distance does have its virtues at times. Now the Swarthmore professor is due some respect for the courage to sign their name to the letter. Here’s my suggestion; how about those professors take a little time off and appear in person at Middlebury and offer to moderate and facilitate a debate on campus? Sound of crickets chirping, I think.

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