What the President of Middlebury Did Not Say

Fenster writes:

Charles Murray was properly incensed over the egregious actions of those protesting his recent appearance at Middlebury College.  At the same time he was gracious and generous as regards the way the Administration handled the event.

In truth there is a lot to be said for how the Administration handled the whole affair.  That they allowed it to happen at all and that they agreed to structure it as an open discussion with what appears to be a reasonable (though critical) interlocutor are good things .  The Administration  warned the students about the implications of disruption.  It had a back-up plan for livestreaming that was put into place effectively.  Laurie Patton, the president, made a point of emphasizing free speech concerns in her statements at and after the event.

I have a few quibbles.  I don’t know much about internal Middlebury politics or the role of this president but this ridiculous dust-up surely did not arise in a vacuum.  While the president is to be commended for standing up for free speech in the moment I wonder what she has done in the past about taming of the kind of irrational exuberance that was on display that day.

That is not just her problem.  Very few presidents have taken a proactive stand about such things and my strong hunch is that no president of a prestige liberal arts college like Middlebury has done much of anything to address the toxic parts of college culture.  Yes, Stanford’s John Etchemendy recently spoke out about “the threat from within” but he was just a provost not a president.  And he spoke out as a former provost, too.  That says something right there that he waited until he was a former.  So while President Patton’s free speech statements are to be commended it should be noted as well that as president of the college she has had some responsibility all along for the collegiate culture on display that day.

One can also quibble with the actions of the Administration in the moment.  The best account I am aware of regarding Middlebury’s soft complicity is that of Peter Wood in The Federalist.

Wood’s points out the following:

–the opening introduction by a Vice President outlined college policy but did so in a very weak fashion, considering that the day before he had warned Murray that “the size and potential ferocity of the planned protests had escalated.”

–The President’s introduction was also weak.

–Murray’s interlocutor for the day was seen to be chanting and clapping along with the students well past the point at which any reasonable person would conclude that Murray was not being allowed to speak–i.e., she herself “participated in the protest.”

–the fall-back option of livestreaming, while clever and well-executed, appears in the context of the day’s activities to have been the likely default option, one that avoided any real clash over who has the right to the megaphone.  In that room, on that day, the protesting students had their way.

There’s more.  Read the whole thing.

In the spirit of Monday Morning Quarterbacking, though, I am pleased to submit the comments that President Patton did not make.


I am pleased to introduce today’s speaker, Dr. Charles Murray.  I will let Dr. Stanger make the more formal introduction of Dr. Murray.  I am here for other reasons.

I make it my business to attend events sponsored by student organizations when it is at all possible so there is nothing new or surprising that I should be here today.  However, I don’t always speak at these events so a word is in order about why I am up here behind a microphone today.

Put simply I am here today to remind you of your obligations as citizens and as students relative to free speech.  I say “citizens” and “students” because there are two separate though interconnected threads where free speech is concerned that apply to you.

The first is in your role as a citizen.  Free speech has a specific meaning in law, and there is a long history of arguments and cases over what free speech is and what it is not.  Many students voice support for the concept of free speech in the abstract but at least in my experience do not have a firm grasp of what free speech means in practice, as the concept has been analyzed in law.

What does the law tell us?   First, from the point of view of the speaker there are very, very few kinds of speech that are not protected.  These have to do with things like “fighting words”, itself a term that has an understood meaning, one which is quite limited and which is very, very far removed from the kind of discussion planned for today.  Simply put, the discussion planned for today is well within bounds relative to the proper exercise of free speech.  Period.

Then there is the question of how free speech applies to protest, and to speech that expresses disagreement or opposition to the speech of others.  Such speech is of course also protected.  But it is protected only insofar as it does not deny the right of others to speak.  When that happens, it is called a heckler’s veto.  That is not allowed.

It’s a pretty simple and symmetrical formulation.  People get to speak their minds–unless their words risk imminent harm.  And other people get to speak in opposition–but do not wield a heckler’s veto.

Middlebury is a private college.  As such Constitutional interpretations of free speech are not as binding on us as they are public entities, such as governments or public universities.  But the fact that free speech concepts flow from the Constitution demands a certain respect of  all citizens.  Additionally, as a result of that respect many private institutions have formulated policy approaches to speech that are similar to those found in law.  Such is the case with Middlebury.  And this is where we turn from your obligations as a citizen to your obligations as a student.

Here is the bottom line for today: there is no right to a heckler’s veto under Middlebury’s policy.  Again: period.  No caveats.  No fine print.  No exceptions.

I know some of you don’t like this formulation.  I have spoken to some of you and I am fully aware that some of you have a different view: that some voices should simply not be afforded the right to expression because of what they have to say.

That may seem brash and radical but let me assure you that this is hardly a novel view.  It is in fact the more common view of the matter through history: someone decides what is acceptable and unacceptable and imposes restrictions accordingly.  That view has been spectacularly unsuccessful and in fact ended up giving rise after a lot of struggle to the concepts of free speech our public and private institutions endorse today.  You are entitled to a different view of things.  You are entitled to endorse legal and policy changes.  But you are severely limited in acting on your view if it impedes the expression of others.

Dr. Murray will shortly take the stage.  Audiences being what they are passions may be high and you may give voice to your feelings, whether approval or disapproval.  That is a reasonable thing to expect and it is in bounds relative to both Constitutional and institutional concepts of free speech.  But after a reasonable period-and being reasonable people we are likely for the most part to agree on what that means–you must permit Dr. Murray to speak.  Any person whose behavior significantly impedes Dr. Murray’s free speech rights here today will be asked, first, to stop and, failing that, to leave.  Anyone declining to leave will be removed from the room by security.

Middlebury’s policies provide for sanctions for infringing on the free speech rights of others.  Those policies will be enforced and students will be subject to appropriate discipline under our policies. Our policies also include cooperation with appropriate public authorities in connection with any acts that may violate the law.

Dr. Murray’s right to speak here today is consistent with both Constitutional interpretations of free speech rights as well as Middlebury policy.  Accordingly, Dr. Murray will speak here today.


Now of course this is way too much to ask in the moment.  It will take more crashes like Middlebury before Boards and other governance bodies expect Presidents to challenge key stakeholders.


About Fenster

Gainfully employed for thirty years, including as one of those high paid college administrators faculty complain about. Earned Ph.D. late in life and converted to the faculty side. Those damn administrators are ruining everything.
This entry was posted in Education, Politics and Economics and tagged , , . Bookmark the permalink.

3 Responses to What the President of Middlebury Did Not Say

  1. amac78 says:

    Peter Wood resisted the common impulse to look for the silver lining, forgoing the celebration of Prof. Stanger’s injury-in-defense-of-freedom and Pres. Patton’s halfhearted defense of free speech in her introduction to the event. Assuming Wood’s account of the videos is reliable, his view seems more realistic.

    Although not directly relevant to this post, Spotted Toad had smart observations in Maybe They Didn’t Want To Hear What He Had To Say. Murray’s talk was to have been based in “Coming Apart,” his book on the growing divide between well-to-do Belmont and struggling Fishtown. From TBC on, Murray’s essays have included a call for greater civic engagement, perhaps a return to the forgotten concept of noblesse oblige. Belmont’s children have not great appetite for such a scolding, it would seem.

    Mr. Toad, a teacher himself, has a follow-on post on the how the growing Have/Have-not divide at the secondary school level contributed to Murray’s reception, See No Bell Curve, Hear No Bell Curve.

    And googling for this comment turned up today’s NYT Op-Ed by Prof. Stanger, Understanding the Angry Mob at Middlebury that Gave Me a Concussion. You’ll be heartened to learn that nothing’s actually amiss with elite campus culture, these problems come from elsewhere:

    “Throughout an ugly campaign and into his presidency, President Trump has demonized Muslims as terrorists and dehumanized many groups of marginalized people. He declared the free press an enemy of the people, replaced deliberation with tweeting, and seems bent on dismantling the separation of powers and 230 years of progress this country has made toward a more perfect union. Much of the free speech he has inspired — or has refused to disavow — is ugly, and has already had ugly real-world consequences. College students have seen this, and have taken note: Speech can become action. That is the context into which Dr. Murray walked and was so profoundly misunderstood… with time to reflect, I have to say that I hear and understand the righteous anger of many of those who shouted us down. I know that many students felt they were standing up to protect marginalized people who have been demeaned or even threatened under the guise of free speech.”

    Stanger goes on to explain that Murray was misunderstood, since he is a pro-gay Never-Trumper. Students and faculty at Belmont University have to do a better job of target selection — yeah, that’s the ticket!


    • amac78 says:

      I yearn for a Preview function — apologies for the multiple typos.


    • Fenster says:

      Thanks for excellent comment. Spotted Toad’s observations are perceptive as usual. I can’t say that I agree that avoidance of Murray’s hard lessons in matters of class was at the top of mind of the protesting students. I don’t think most of them know much about the book he was there to discuss, or much of Murray at all other than that he must be evil. Then again, Spotted Toad’s observations may be in part tongue in cheek–hard to say.

      BTW I knew I just knew that someone other than a blathering Middlebury student would end up penning a strong defense of the protest. It was inevitable, and it is no surprise it surfaced in Slate, here.


      Not the time and the place to fisk the article. Suffice to say for now that I spy more in the way of rhetorical devices and moralistic chest-thumping than I note substantive argument.

      And here is an article about how Franklin & Marshall did it better–brought on a controversial speaker and let him speak!


      Bully for them. Indeed, FIRE recently complimented the college on trustee adoption of a freedom of expression statement modeled on the one put out by the University of Chicago. More, it turns out that it was the *faculty* of F&M that pushed the trustees to adopt the statement! Even better.

      I think it would have been sufficient to let F&M’s actions speak for themselves. But no that is not good enough. The President felt compelled to virtue signal in approved fashion, sending out the right coded message to the effect that favoring free speech does not mean he is on board with the whole college-bashing thing going round.

      So here is his comment on F&M relative to Middlebury:

      “There have been a number of social critics — in and outside of the academy — who have labeled an entire generation of students as illiberal crybullies. If you work at a college campus, you know that these sweeping denunciations are not accurate. Many students in the last two years have protested speech that they felt was offensive to them in a pro-speech manner, but you don’t read a lot of descriptions of the media about pro-speech protest.”

      No progress without hypocrisy!



Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s