Do Free Speech Students Outnumber the Snowflakes?

As Middlebury initiated what appears to be token punishments (single-term probation) for the students who disrupted the Charles Murray talk, the college’s student government (which has yet to condemn the disruptors in any way) passed a resolution demanding that Middlebury cease all punishment of students under the current college disciplinary code, lest they “contribute to psychological trauma for marginalized students held accountable for disruption.” The vote continued a disturbing pattern of the majority of the Middlebury student body (the measure passed 10-3) seeming to endorse, or at least excuse, the actions of the mob. For a sense of the demonstrators’ hostility to free speech in their own words, listen to this New York Times podcast from Monday.

Countering this news, however, came a recent poll from Yale. Sponsored by the William F. Buckley, Jr. program, the poll found that by a more than 4-to-1 margin, Yale students opposed speech codes; and by a 16-to-1 margin, students endorsed bringing in intellectually diverse speakers, as opposed to forbidding “people from speaking on campus who have controversial views and opinions on issues like politics, race, religion or gender.” While some caveats exist (the pollster, McLaughlin, has a bad track record; and asking the second question in a different way—stressing the purported harm speakers pose to students—might have yielded a less promising result), this result is encouraging.

It also matters, from a policy angle. If, in fact, the Middlebury student government represents the majority viewpoint among most students, then little chance exists for meaningful dialogue on campus, absent very aggressive intervention, likely from trustees and perhaps even from legislators. If, on the other hand, anti-civil liberties activists represent only a minority, then colleges and universities should do more to facilitate events where the more passive (silenced?) minority of students can exchange ideas. Administrators, in particular, could do more, at relatively little cost—perhaps by adopting the University of Chicago principles, perhaps by encouraging faculty to do more to facilitate a broader array of voices speaking on campus.

Along these lines, it might be useful to share a recent experience of mine at Lafayette College. Early in the term, a newly-formed campus organization, the Mill Series, asked me to give a talk on due process and campus sexual assault. It quickly became clear things might not go well; the social media response among campus seemed fairly unfavorable, and the date of the talk had to be changed twice to avoid further inflaming campus constituencies. But the talk wound up going very well. (I’ll link to the video when available on my twitter feed.) Turnout was robust. Some questions were supportive of my thesis; some were skeptical, a few highly skeptical. But all of the questions were well-informed and responded to the actual content of the talk, rather than what the students might have thought I would say when the talk started. A couple of students even noted in the Q+A session, which wound up going several hours, that they had anticipated a somewhat different talk, seemingly because of the hostile pre-talk social media content.

So why did this talk not generate a disturbing response, like Charles Murray’s at Middlebury or Heather Mac Donald’s at Claremont McKenna? First, the organizers—Professor Brandon Van Dyck and Lafayette student Abdul Manan—actively engaged with campus critics before the talk. (Because the Mill Series has no sponsorship, they were volunteering their effort.) Obviously, this type of pre-talk engagement placed an unfair burden on their time, and shouldn’t be a requirement of any talk organizer, but their willingness to be proactive clearly defused a good deal of the tension before I came.

Second, the Lafayette students themselves already had been engaged with the issue of speech on campus. Earlier this semester, the student government had appointed an ad hoc committee to look into whether Lafayette heard from a sufficient variety of speakers. While many of the students who attended my talk (it was an ideologically diverse group) seemed critical of the committee’s work, none questioned the general principle that hearing from people with different views formed an important part of a quality liberal arts education. In a concrete way, the students’ behavior seemed to confirm the findings of the Yale poll.

For understandable reasons, protests like those at Claremont McKenna and Middlebury attract media attention. But to the extent disruptive students can be isolated rather than accommodated, colleges should do so.

2 thoughts on “Do Free Speech Students Outnumber the Snowflakes?”

  1. Scott Greenfield quoted “Treehugger” in a recent post at Simple Justice: “First snapshot: As an undergrad in the mid-90s, I marched into office hours for a course on some slice of Western thought/philosophy, newly armed with the notion that dominant discourse effectively erases the roles and narratives of women and minorities, and proceeded to complain that the reading list consisted of only white men.

    My complaint was met with annoyance and exasperation, but the prof did something else: he asked me what, or who, specifically, should be on the reading list and what then should be replaced – and why. In other words, he treated my complaint as an argument, something within, and not outside the bounds of reasonable discussion, and by doing so (as I realized in that moment) took my own conviction more seriously than I had taken it myself.

    I was speechless, and embarrassed. The prof said I could think about it and come back. So I did – I studied the syllabus to try to see where I’d wedge the one or two “replacements” that I’d mustered, and I had to appreciate the thoughtfully-considered, tight set of readings. I went back and admitted to the integrity of the syllabus, and shared what I’d come up with anyway, and this time the exchange focused on what those authors substantively have to offer, and in relation to what contexts or themes.

    Thinking back, maybe I owe this professor an even greater debt of gratitude than I realized in his commitment to pedagogy, his stubbornness in the practice of reason; because maybe I was at risk of that dangerous turn, that reactive and self-certain retreat from honest dialogue and toward (non-)intellectual closure. What stuck with me is that reason abides – full stop. Reason is the great equalizer — available to anyone and all of us and asks only that we take it up in good faith, that we make the case. This, to me, is what I always thought worth protecting. (Comment broken into readable paragraphs.)”

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