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.