A successful heckler’s veto and an injury to a professor: that’s what academic and writer Charles Murray was met with when he arrived at Vermont’s Middlebury College yesterday to deliver a public lecture.
Murray had been invited by Middlebury’s student group affiliated with the American Enterprise Institute, a think tank at which Murray is a scholar. Many of his writings are controversial, but perhaps none more than The Bell Curve, a book that linked intelligence and race and that has been widely condemned by many social scientists (even as Murray has been supported by others).
Prior to the point when Murray was introduced, several Middlebury officials reminded students that they were allowed to protest but not to disrupt the talk. The students ignored those reminders and faced no visible consequences for doing so.
As soon as Murray took the stage, students stood up, turned their backs to him and started various chants that were loud enough and in unison such that he could not talk over them.
The scene inside was captured on video:
With the lecture unable to continue, Middlebury officials then moved Murray to a separate location and livestreamed his talk into the original venue. Per Middlebury officials, Murray’s car was subsequently attacked by protesters who “surrounded the car, jumped on it, pounded on it and tried to prevent [the car] from leaving campus.”
And the Addison County Independent reports the appalling detail that professor Allison Stanger had to be treated at a local hospital when “one of the demonstrators pulled Prof. Stanger’s hair and twisted her neck.” According to the Middlebury official quoted in the Independent, Stanger is wearing a neck brace following the attack.
The day before Murray’s planned speech, a letter signed by more than 450 Middlebury alumni and published in the campus newspaper decried Murray’s invitation and encouraged students to “dissent” and “make that dissent known howsoever you see fit.” In their letter, the alumni employ the same flawed rationale we at FIRE hear time and again: We support free speech — just not this free speech.
This is not an issue of freedom of speech. We think it is necessary to allow a diverse range of perspectives to be voiced at Middlebury. In college, we learned through thoughtful, compassionate and often difficult discussions inside the classroom and out — conversations in which our beliefs were questioned and our assumptions challenged. We fully support the core liberal arts principle that contact with other intellectual viewpoints and life experiences than one’s own is integral to a beneficial education.
However, in this case we find the principle does not apply …
The alumni argued that Murray’s scholarship lacks quality, and that his views are offensive. But these are subjective determinations, not a principled basis by which to limit freedom of speech. And mob censorship is, undeniably, a free speech issue.
While Middlebury is a private institution, it places a high value on free speech, proclaiming that “free intellectual inquiry, debate, and constructive dialogue are vital to Middlebury’s academic mission and must be protected even when the views expressed are unpopular or controversial.”
Middlebury warned students not to disrupt the speech and employed a backup plan to ensure Murray’s message was eventually heard.
In a statement today, Middlebury President Laurie L. Patton said she was “deeply disappointed” by last night’s events and lamented that the Middlebury community “failed to live up to our core values.” She apologized to Murray, Professor Stanger, and “everyone who came in good faith to participate in a serious discussion.”
FIRE will defend anyone’s right to peacefully protest and challenge any speaker or idea, but responding to speech with violence, or by shouting it down, is not acceptable. Sadly, FIRE’s response to the violent protests last month at UC Berkeley must already be repeated: The use of mob violence to respond to constitutionally protected expression is an affront to our nation’s liberal traditions. It must not be allowed on our campuses.