Protesters shout down controversial speaker at Middlebury College
MIDDLEBURY — Middlebury College students shut down the scheduled late afternoon presentation by speaker Charles Murray, with boos, jeers, stomps and chants last Thursday.
“We’re deeply disappointed in the events of last night. There’s just no other way to put that,” Middlebury’s Vice President for Communications Bill Burger said Friday morning. “We had hoped that Mr. Murray could come to this community and be allowed to speak and that Professor Stanger would be allowed to pose challenging questions to him in a way that we could all come away learning more.
“Unfortunately that was not possible.”
Later in the evening, a group of masked protesters violently confronted Murray and political science professor Allison Stanger, the event moderator, as they left the building (see related story here).
Murray had been invited to campus by the student American Enterprise Institute Club for a lecture/discussion on his 2014 book “Coming Apart: The State of White America, 1960-2010.” The book looks at the increasing fragmentation of American society by class (focusing on non-Latino whites) and hypothesizes a moral decline in the American working class. Murray’s ideas were brought up by a number of Republican candidates in the 2016 Presidential race.
Murray has drawn fire nationwide as the co-author of the controversial 1994 best seller “The Bell Curve: Intelligence and Class Structure in American Life,” which posited that white men were innately more intelligent than women or people of color.
New York Times columnist Charles Hebert called “The Bell Curve” “a scabrous piece of racial pornography masquerading as serious scholarship” and, more simply, “bogus.” The Southern Poverty Law Center includes a profile of Murray in its database of extremists, and says he uses “racist pseudoscience and misleading statistics to argue that social inequality is caused by the genetic inferiority of the black and Latino communities, women and the poor.” It labels Murray’s ideology as “white nationalist.”
Murray is a scholar at the American Enterprise Institute, an influential right-wing think tank. He holds a Ph.D. in political science from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and a B.A. in history from Harvard.
In 2012, conservative spokesperson David Brooks said of ‘Coming Apart’: “I’ll be shocked if there’s another book this year as important as Charles Murray’s ‘Coming Apart.’ I’ll be shocked if there’s another book that so compellingly describes the most important trends in American society.”
Controversy leading up to Murray’s scheduled lecture at 4:30 p.m. Thursday included a student-led protest outside the McCullough Student Center, joined by community members from the Middlebury Chapter of Indivisible, and a letter signed by 450 alumni protesting Murray’s presence on campus.
As interest grew, the event was moved from Dana Auditorium to the larger Wilson Hall, which seats over 400. For the same reasons, the administration also decided not to admit the general public, except for the press.
AEI Club student organizers had planned to have Murray speak for 45 minutes then field questions. That did not happen.
Wilson Hall was packed. Every seat was taken and many people were standing around the edges.
The afternoon’s tone was set from the moment Burger began introductions. He was booed as he approached the podium, and his introductory remarks were peppered with boos, heckling and raucous cheers for comments shouted from the audience.
Around the room students waved signs saying: “Scientific racism = racism,” “Respect existence or expect resistance,” “Resist white supremacy,” “AEI must go,” and “Free speech ≠ hate speech.” Many other signs also used profanity.
Remarks from AEI Club student organizers Ivan Valladares and Alexander Khan drew more heckling.
Especially loud boos followed remarks by Valladares in which he thanked Middlebury College President Laurie Patton for attending the event and praised her commitment to “rhetorical resilience,” a phrase Patton coined to convey the college’s commitment to strengthening students in the art of fair, open and robust public debate.
But the crowd quieted down when Patton herself stepped up to the mic.
The college president reminded the crowd that although “Mr. Murray’s work is deeply controversial, some of it is also influential in the public sphere.” She reiterated the college’s commitment to “unlocking the brilliance of every student.” And laid out the difference between listening to and endorsing a speaker’s ideas.
She praised the college community for its work thus far in the “painful work of building (a) robust public sphere” and its commitment to supporting all voices.
Patton underscored the importance of public debate.
“If there ever was a time for Americans to take on arguments that offend us it is now,” she said. “If there ever was a time for us to challenge influential public views with better reasons, better research, better logic and better data it is now. If there ever was a time we need to argue back, to declare ourselves committed to arguing for a better society it is now.”
Patton reminded the audience that anyone who shuts down the speech of another is in violation of the college policy.
“The very premise of free speech on this campus is that the speaker has a right to be heard,” she said.
This last comment was greeted with loud applause.
However, as Murray was then introduced and strode toward the podium he was booed loudly.
Murray uttered fewer than 10 words before all but a handful of the hundreds of students in the hall stood up, turned their backs to him, held up their signs and began chanting a series of prepared remarks, including:
“This is not respectful discourse or a debate about free speech. These are not ideas that can be fairly debated. It is not ‘representative’ of the other side to give a platform to such dangerous ideologies … We see this talk as hate speech … And you will never have the comfort of our silence again. What is most important must be spoken, made verbal and shared, even at the risk of having it bruised or misunderstood. Death is the final silencing tool and so many voices and lives have already been taken in the name of eugenics and of white supremacy.”
The students then began chanting, in a call and response format: “Who is the enemy?” “White supremacy”; “Hey hey, ho ho, Charles Murray has got to go”; “Charles Murray go away, Racist, sexist, anti-gay”; “Your message is hatred, we will not tolerate it”; and “Charles Murray go away, Middlebury says no way.”
Protesters cycled repeatedly through these chants, roaring on for over 20 minutes. With hundreds shouting at the same time in unison, the sound was deafening. No other speaker could possibly be heard.
Finally Burger returned to the podium and — over catcalls of “shut it down,” more boos, and chants of “leave our school” — announced a plan B for those who wished to hear the presentation. Stanger and Murray would move to another venue and the remainder of Murray’s remarks, along with Stanger’s questioning of him, would be live-streamed to a giant video screen in Wilson Hall and to personal electronic devices across campus.
Stanger got up and was booed and shouted down as she tried to explain how her questioning of Murray would rigorously challenge his ideas.
Finally as the boos and shouts grew louder, and as the tone of the protesters grew even uglier, she said: “I think I have the answer. You’re not going to let us speak. I think that’s a terrible shame.”
Most attendees then departed from the venue.
Those few who remained to hear Stanger and Murray’s interchange, however, were again disappointed. As their discussion was streamed, protesters in the room again made it impossible to hear by tapping their feet, rattling chairs, and shouting obscenities such as, “F••• white supremacy” and “F••• eugenics.”
As the chanting again drowned out the now onscreen interlocutors Stanger and Murray, a lone voice from the back of the hall shouted: “Respect free speech.”
In answer, the tapping, rattling, clapping and chanting continued.
A little later on, fire alarms were set off.
Murray, who is no stranger to protests, commented on Twitter about his experience late Thursday.
“Report from the front: The Middlebury administration was exemplary. The students were seriously scary,” he tweeted. “PS Middlebury Prof. Allison Stanger is really cool. Great conversation.”
While hundreds took part in the protest actions that shut down the event, others on campus questioned whether such tactics were the best way to oppose Murray’s views.
Student Kate Reinmuth commented: “I sympathize with the protesters, their skepticism about Murray’s works, and their legitimate pain at some of his assertions. However, I also believe that a commitment to free speech is a central pillar of the Middlebury College experience. In this way, I am disheartened by the actions of my peers.
“The only way to guarantee that your voice is never heard is to remove yourself from the conversation entirely and, unfortunately, this group of protesters did that on behalf of everyone today by shutting the discussion down.
Reinmuth continued, “I hope that the college can come together in the next several days. All eyes are on how the administration, political science department, AEI Club, faculty, and students react to one another. I hope that a sincere discourse about free speech can occur — especially because it didn’t today.”
Said AEI event organizer Philip Hoxie: “I was obviously very disappointed that we were not able to engage with Dr. Murray’s lecture as planned. However, I do not believe that what we saw on Thursday accurately represents the sentiments of Middlebury College, but rather those of an organized and vocal minority. In fact, I think that the college administration showed a deep commitment to their core values while facing tremendous adversity.
“Protesters have a right to have their voices heard. The AEI Club tried to work with Public Safety, the administration, and the Middlebury Resistance to ensure that protesters had ample opportunity to exercise their right to free speech. However, they do not have the right to silence the voices of others with whom they disagree. Moreover, actions were taken after the end of the event by protesters that in no way constitute speech.”
A Middlebury College faculty member shares his response to Thursday’s protest of the Charles Murray appearance on campus: Click here.
Reporter Gaen Murphree is at [email protected].
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