FIRE staff heard rumors last week that Charles Murray, a controversial conservative social scientist, would be speaking at Villanova University Charles Widger School of Law. The event was scheduled for about a month after a protest of Murray’s March 2 lecture at Middlebury College turned violent. (That event left a faculty member with a neck injury.) Given the history of animosity that some have for Murray, who co-authored The Bell Curve, we felt it was important to attend his lecture and see how he would be received at Villanova.
It was hard to miss the police presence upon arriving to the campus on March 30. The university clearly anticipated protests. However, this didn’t seem to change the mood among students and others. Most attendees were polite and there was no sign of protest inside the lecture hall until Murray was invited to the lectern.
After some loud, intentional coughing, three protesters marched to the front of the hall with a large banner that read, “FREE HATE SPEECH = THE POWER TO SILENCE DISSENT,” as well as smaller signs with similar messages. Throughout the first seven minutes of the scheduled lecture, protesters shouted criticisms of Villanova University for “giving a platform to hate speech.” They were told that they could stand silently by Murray, and political science professor and event coordinator Colleen Sheehan offered them the first question during the Q & A. Nonetheless, all offers by the hosts were rebuffed by the protesters, who continued to interrupt the lecture.
About four minutes into the protest, a Villanova professor stood up and challenged the protesters, stating, “I’m an economics professor here, I’m a person-of-color, whatever that word means. I have no idea what he’s going to talk about, he’s said some interesting things in the past. I want to listen, there are a lot of people at this school who want to listen.” A few minutes — and a few more attempts to persuade the protesters — later, Murray left the floor and the protesters were escorted out by security. Murray returned a short time later to finish his speech, despite loud chants from outside the hall and a silent protest by other students off to the side of Murray’s lectern.
FIRE was disappointed that when protesters were offered an opportunity to have a dialogue with Murray, they continued to try to shut down his speech instead. In a free society, the best response to speech one finds disagreeable is more speech, and those inclined to shout down their opponents should understand that simply silencing a speaker does little to challenge his or her ideas.
Update: This post has been updated to include an additional video.