Middlebury Student Government Says No to Free Speech

Middlebury’s response to the disruption of Charles Murray’s invited campus address—followed by the protesters assaulting and injuring Professor Alison Stanger, moderator for the talk—offered little ground for optimism. A statement from the college implied that evidence (albeit ambiguous evidence) existed suggesting that some professors violated the Faculty Handbook in the pre-disruption period. The disruptors themselves received token punishments, as several sympathetic professors supported them in the disciplinary process. The chief of the Middlebury Police Department even denied that the disruptors assaulted Stanger. (“It was more of a scrum. There wasn’t any assault per se.”)

The Middlebury student government, moreover, has seemed intent on confirming the critics’ case about a campus out of control. After repeatedly expressing support, in words and deeds, for the disruptors, the student government concluded its term by rejecting an academic freedom/viewpoint diversity bill, which sponsors Rae Aaron and Jack Goldfield hoped would reaffirm the college’s stated commitment—clearly not upheld in the Murray case—that “officially recognized student organizations may invite to the campus and hear any person of their choosing,” and 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.”

In the body’s first meeting after the Murray disruption and the attack on Stanger, the student government’s co-chair issued an apology—for not convening an “emergency session” before the Murray event, with the goal of appeasing the would-be disruptors. The only resolution the student government passed on the issue was a thinly-veiled effort to urge that the disruptors avoid all punishment for their actions. The measure was approved on a 10-3 vote.

The academic freedom/viewpoint diversity resolution noted that pressure on campus free speech has come from both sides of the ideological spectrum. It urged the administration to champion diverse viewpoints on campus, expressed support for the right of peaceful protest, and looked to have the student government call “upon Middlebury College to allow outside speakers of all viewpoints—assuming they are invited by a student organization, conduct themselves in a lawful manner, and do not physically harass—to speak on campus without the threat of disruption, and to enforce the policies as set forth in the Student Handbook.”

This commonsense proposal generated furious opposition, and ultimately (in a somewhat weakened form) went down to defeat. If nothing else, opponents of free speech on the Middlebury campus are unusually candid in their distaste for the concept. While some critics offered the unusual canard—that a distinction exists between “hate speech” and free speech, and the college needs to crack down on the former—they also presented some intriguing claims.

One student senator, for instance, incredibly asserted that the college had both a statutory (hostile work environment for student employees) and a constitutional (“due process”) requirement to censor. Other student senators claimed that passing an academic freedom resolution would “prioritize” some voices, while ignoring “voices that can’t be heard because of societal pressures”—even though Middlebury has myriad student identity politics groups (and, of course, academic programs as well), while the only students whose voices were suppressed in this affair were those whose group had invited Murray to speak. Several senators justified their vote on grounds that defending free speech could be interpreted as criticism of the student disruptors, who at the time still had not received their (token) discipline.

In perhaps the strangest section of the debate, a co-sponsor of the resolution pointed (appropriately) to the suffrage movement as an organization that used peaceful protest, and the power of ideas, to win support. (She could also have referenced Jon Rauch’s arguments on the importance of free speech to the gay rights movement.) The critics’ response? Using “the women’s right to vote movement is not applicable,” because it was “only white women” who benefited from suffrage.

The minutes also featured a lengthy statement from one of the student disruptors. After speaking of his desire for a “middle path” on the issue of free speech—“I’m not saying Charles Murray has to be arrested if he comes onto our campus (that would be repression/censorship)”—the disruptor affirmed that if “we as a community are going to commit to ending discrimination, we will also have to commit to denouncing speech that constitutes discrimination (either by further normalizing white-supremacy or engendering violent/discriminatory action).” His conclusion? “We must name white supremacy and deprive it of power. Robbing Charles Murray of one platform for his racist pseudoscience is a small but important part of that resistance.”

In an interview with The New York Times, a Middlebury political science professor worried how events of the year showed a failure of teaching, in that many of the college’s students “don’t understand the value of free speech at a college and what free speech really means.” Based on the outcome of the free speech resolution debate, it would be difficult to argue with that assessment.


  • KC Johnson

    KC Johnson is a history professor at Brooklyn College and the City University of New York Graduate Center. He is the author, along with Stuart Taylor, of The Campus Rape Frenzy: The Attack on Due Process at America's Universities.

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3 thoughts on “Middlebury Student Government Says No to Free Speech

  1. Hate Speech, Pandora’s Box.

    Having given credence to the notion that ‘certain categories’ of speech are NOT protected by the 1st Amendment (“lewd and obscene, the profane, the libelous and the insulting or ‘fighting’ words”), having extended those categories to include “imminent danger”, having ‘winked’ at Higher Education’s broadening of the umbrella as campus “speech codes”, having blessed the incredibly twisted notion that “sexual assault” is “anything unwanted” and “racism is subconscious, unintended micro-aggressions which can only be perceived by those blessed with ‘micro-aggressive receptors’….then we cannot be surprised that ANY speech can be thereby tarred & feathered ‘Hate Speech’ by anyone so inclined.

    And who is so inclined? Why all those who wish to silence the heretic. And who then is the heretic? All of us, and everyone who does not jump to recite the Social Justice Pledge…who does not salute at Inclusion & bow at Diversity…who questions the value of “Equality” and points instead to Quality, to Merit, to Performance, to Standards, to grammar, to spelling, to civility, to listening, to the importance of Respect. We have met the Heretic and he is us.

    And the New Red Guard, in fully deconstructionist mode, inhabits a world in which the very value of Free Speech is seen as yet another expression of White Phallocentric Privilege which must be continuously checked. “No,” they say, “we will not tolerate anything which in any way whatsoever can be seen to prolong, or underline, or enable the continued oppression of the Oppressed, even in the sense that intellectual dialogue, question & answer, back & forth debate in the pursuit of truth is preferenced or allowed to occur. No! It will not be. It shall not stand. No need to pursue Truth when we already possess Revealed Truth!”

    The Idiots at Pomona reacted to their President’s mild disapproval (and subsequent endorsement of free speech) with a rant which accused the school and its leadership of everything short of Satan Worship, saying, “The idea that there is a single truth–’the Truth’–is a construct of the Euro-West that is deeply rooted in the Enlightenment, which was a movement that also described Black and Brown people as both subhuman and impervious to pain. This construction is a myth and white supremacy, imperialism, colonization, capitalism, and the United States of America are all of its progeny. The idea that the truth is an entity for which we must search, in matters that endanger our abilities to exist in open spaces, is an attempt to silence oppressed peoples. We, Black students, exist with a myriad of different identities. We are queer, trans, differently-abled, poor/low-income, undocumented, Muslim, first-generation and/or immigrant, and positioned in different spaces across Africa and the African diaspora. The idea that we must subject ourselves routinely to the hate speech of fascists who want for us not to exist plays on the same Eurocentric constructs that believed Black people to be impervious to pain and apathetic to the brutal and violent conditions of white supremacy.” This is lunacy, of course. But it’s lunacy which poisons every campus and short-circuits every education.

    Middlebury, Pomona, most recently Evergreen State. This rough beast is everywhere, it’s time come round at last — massive, unthinking, and ravenous. And we, as 21st century Chamberlains, slink & withdraw quietly before it, piles of dollars in our wake, hoping to appease the unappeasable with yet another sacrifice, yet another building, yet another hire, yet another mandatory sensitivity training program. “Peace in our time,” we say, as our Universities burn in every passionate auto-da-fe. We should be ashamed; we should be furious — but that would take more self-awareness & understanding than we seem to possess.

    1. This was my response to the chairman’s apology: “Most importantly, and to my deep regret, it contributed to a feeling of voicelessness that many already experience on this campus, and it contributed to the very real pain that many people – particularly people of color – have felt as a result of this event.” This is an absurd statement about a pernicious phenomenon. How does one person’s speaking silence someone else? An academic talk is a fine place to make one’s voice heard in the form of spirited, yet civil questions. Moreover, nothing prevents those who disagree with writing letters or editorials. When one group claims to be being silenced or to feeling unsafe, this is coded language for their real meaning which is: “I don’t like your point of view; therefore, your speech is not protected.”

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