We have previously discussed the anti-free speech controversies at Middlebury College where a professor and a speaker were attacked. Now protests have erupted over another conservative speaker, Ryszard Legutko, who was invited to speak on campus but then forced into a small classroom presentation. That did not satisfy students who demanded to know how such a speaker could be invited and how it would be avoided in the future. According to a recording of the meeting, the college officials apologized for allowing such a speaker and promised actions in the future to avoid such controversies.
First and foremost, I have no idea who Legutko is or what he believes. He is a polish philosopher and politician who was invited by the university’s Alexander Hamilton Forum series, the Department of Political Science and the Rohatyn Center for Global Affairs. From a free speech perspective, I am more concerned about the suggestion of these administrators that future speakers would be chosen based on the content of their views. Students were reportedly upset by his views of homosexuality.
The meeting was held with Sujata Moorti, the new dean of the faculty, Dean of Students Baishakhi Taylor and Renee Wells, director of education for equity and inclusion. One told the students “I hear you, and you should be outraged, and we should acknowledge that and apologize, because that’s the least we can do right now, because we can’t make it right in the moment. But in the future we will do everything we can to make it right.”
This followed a canceling of the original venue on the same type of vague security concerns that we have seen used by other schools as a way of preventing controversial (and often conservative) speakers from appearing on campus.
One student reportedly stated
“I wanna express my frustration and point out that there’s a pattern. Could you demystify both decisions and rationales for those decisions and how that is completely an exertion of power over students, and how that is horrifying, scary, like powerless, awful, terrible … I honestly think it is appalling that this is the school that I go to right now. I know that the three of you … I’m not saying that you are the individuals involved in it but I do want to say that I’m pretty disgusted right now, and I hope that’s communicated.”
The response from the administrators was not to say that students are exposed to different ideas at college and that such views are part of an intellectually pluralistic environment. Instead, they reportedly said the following:
“I can’t answer what specifically what will be different, but I can assure you something will be different … or I won’t be here anymore either,” an administrator said. “So one of the things that we will be working on is saying we need to be having very intentional conversations about how we got to this place and be accountable for that, and be also accountable about what we are going to do. … I am willing to put every ounce of energy I have into the conversation, and will hold people accountable who are not playing into the conversation the way they need to …”
Now my understanding is that this person was invited as part of the the school’s academic program and various students and faculty wanted to heat his views. Yet, one student captured the expectation of viewpoint regulations that these administrators were fostering: “I didn’t need a homophobe on this campus. There are so many other people that could’ve talked about it, and yet there’s this push for diversity of thought. I don’t need to pay money to have someone that trivializes our identities to come here.”
Of course, the student pays money to be educated in one of the premier intellectual institutions in the country. The touchstone of such an education was free thought and free exchange of ideas. One student however defined academic freedom as being less free to discuss academic viewpoints: “That is not academic freedom, that is putting the burden on marginalized students to educate their peers that homophobia is wrong. I’m not learning anything from doing that.”
Some newspapers like The Wall Street Journal have written about the incident but the school itself appears to be assuring students that it will not allow free speech to break out again on campus.
We previously discussed the courageous stand of my alma mater, University of Chicago, against the growing speech codes and “safe spaces” in campuses around the country. Purdue University also took a stand in favor of free speech in adopting “the Chicago principles.” Christopher Newport has also joined schools in support of free speech.
Again, I do not know this speaker but the greatest threat that I see to the intellectual life and integrity of Middlebury is the response of these administrators.