Top 10, No. 8: College protesters shout down speaker

There were many protests in Addison County in 2017 (see No. 2 in our Top 10), but one that struck a particularly grating chord that echoed around the nation was the demonstration over speaker Charles Murray’s appearance at Middlebury College this past March 2. The local college, like institutions of higher learning around the country, continues to wrestle with free speech issues as we head into the new year.
Middlebury College students shut down the scheduled late afternoon presentation by Murray at Wilson Hall with boos, jeers, stomps and chants. Employed as a scholar at the tight-wing think tank American Enterprise Institute, Murray has been described variously as a professor on the one hand, and a racist troll on the other. He 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.
Hundreds protested outside the speaker’s venue. The public was not allowed to attend the speech, but Wilson Hall was packed; many people stood around the edges. Introductory remarks were peppered with boos, heckling and raucous cheers 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.
Members of the student club that sponsored Murray’s appearance where heckled when they spoke. The crowd quieted down when President Laurie Patton stepped up to the mic, but they did not give Murray the same respect. He 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: “Who is the enemy? — White supremacy” and “Your message is hatred, we will not tolerate it.”
After 20 minutes, Murray was ushered out of the hall, and he held a discussion with political science professor Allison Stanger that was live streamed on closed circuit TV.
Later, a group of masked protesters violently confronted Murray, Stanger and a college official as they left building. Stanger was taken to the hospital to be treated for a neck injury. College spokesman Bill Burger said at the time that officials believed that some of them were not students but “outside agitators.” The trio got into a car, and the protesters violently set upon it, rocking the car, pounding on it, jumping on and trying to prevent it from leaving campus.” Burger said that “at one point a large traffic sign was thrown in front of the car,” before Murray escaped.
Describing Murray’s trip from building to car, Middlebury Police Chief Tom Hanley said, “He was like a little fish dropping into the shark pool.”
The campus response to Murray drew national attention.
Not surprisingly, the college was thrown into turmoil as students, faculty and administrators debated the value of free speech and wrestled with the concept of inclusivity, not just on campus, but in America today. The faculty was divided over the issue, with some emphasizing free speech as a foundational value of higher education, and others other emphasizing inclusivity and an inclusive process as important next steps on campus. The head of the Political Science Department issued an apology for the way he went about giving the department’s backing for Murray’s speech, which was then quoted (perhaps out of context) by The Wall Street Journal.
None of the protesters faced criminal charges, but the school disciplined 67 students.
Clearly the face of Middlebury College had not been fully rehabilitated by fall. Late in November someone spammed the college email system announcing that right wing provocateur James O’Keefe would visit Middlebury on Nov. 30 to discuss the college’s “free speech problem.” It is still unclear who — if anyone local — brought O’Keefe to town; but he was not welcome on the college campus and ended up delivering a rant at the Courtyard by Marriott motel on the outskirts of town to a small group that seemed to be dominated by media waiting for some news to happen — it didn’t.

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