Middlebury College cancels talk by controversial speaker

Editor’s note: This article originally appeared in the Middlebury Campus.
MIDDLEBURY — Despite the cancellation of his public lecture earlier today amid what college administrators described as “safety concerns,” the right-wing Polish politician Ryszard Legutko still spoke on campus this afternoon to a private classroom audience. A peaceful protest originally scheduled to take place outside of the lecture did not occur.
The cause of the “security concerns” has not been made public. It may appear, especially given the media attention to the protests during the Charles Murray incident, that the concerns reference threatening behavior on the part of the protesters, but due to the nature of the planned peaceful protest it seems that is not the case.
Rather than speak before an audience at the Kirk Alumni Center as planned, Legutko delivered his lecture to Political Science Professor Matthew Dickinson’s “American Presidency” seminar. The talk, initially intended for the nine students in Dickinson’s class, became a pseudo-public event as students arrived over the course of the talk, which continued about 15 minutes after the class period ended. Student protesters, who had originally planned to peacefully and non-disruptively protest Legutko’s talk with a queer celebration, were not present at the event today.
A student in Dickinson’s class who was involved in the Hamilton Forum — the speaker series that brought Legutko to campus, headed by Political Science professor Keegan Callanan — asked if he could invite Legutko to the 1:30 p.m. class in the Robert A. Jones ’59 (RAJ) House. According to Dickinson, the event was entirely impromptu.
“I asked the students, as part of the classroom experience, do you want to invite him in here to critique his argument,” Dickinson told The Campus. When students expressed interest, Dickinson administered a secret ballot. He said that he would not invite the speaker unless there was a unanimous decision to invite him, which there was.
Before Legutko arrived, Dickinson had students research the politician’s views and formulate questions. “We spent the first hour of class conducting our own research to gather questions for discussion,” said Owen Marsh ’20, a student in the class. According to Marsh, Legutko came in to the class about halfway through, at 3 p.m.
Dickinson did not invite students from outside his class because he did not originally intend for the event to be public, but students sporadically filtered into the RAJ conference room throughout the talk. Political Science Professor John Harpham and the students in his “Rousseau” seminar joined the crowd after hearing about the lecture from a student in the class and cutting class short. Some of Harpham’s students, who had planned on protesting the lecture, chose not to attend.
Legutko delivered the lecture he was originally planning to give at the now-canceled event, though it was abbreviated for lack of time. He then took questions from Dickinson and the audience, which was by then composed of students from his class, students from Harpham’s class and other visitors. A portion of the question and answer period was recorded on live stream by The Campus.
Provost Jeff Cason, who sent the school-wide email earlier about the cancelation of the lecture, told The Campus in an email that the college did not know about Dickinson’s decision to invite Legutko to his class in advance of it happening. Cason clarified that if the college had received a request, they would have advised Dickinson not to host Legutko “given our safety concerns.”
“If we had been approached asking if there were safety concerns, we would have said yes, most definitely,” he said. “We don’t have any policy to shut down a speaker invited to a class; faculty have speakers come to their classes regularly without any centralized approval.” INSIDE THE CLASSROOM
Dickinson asked Legutko if reinterpretations of marriage over time to include same-sex marriage are a social intrusion. Many of the concerns student activists initially voiced about Legutko’s visit centered around controversial statements he made regarding same-sex marriage and gay rights.
“I am very reluctant to tamper with the meaning of words,” Legutko responded. “Once you change the meaning, you are in for trouble. Marriage as we understood was between a man and a woman. What has happened recently is a radical change. I don’t think that we should be allowed to go as far as changing one of the most fundamental institutions of the world.”
Legutko took more questions about liberal democracy and his views on tradition. One student asked how Legutko felt about the controversy surrounding his visit, and invoked the Charles Murray incident.
“Charles Murray was the first thing on my mind when I was invited … It was unpleasant information, but it proves what I wrote in my book … How can these things happen?” Legutko responded. “Why is there this spirit of ideological crusade?”
Dickinson stepped in to inform Legutko that student protesters had no intention of stopping him from speaking. Callanan, sitting in the audience, argued that there were some students who wanted the invitation revoked, claiming it was “not a majority, but definitely some.” Dickinson responded that he respectfully disagreed with Callanan, and that no protesters had an interest in stopping the event.
After the talk, Dickinson expressed concern to The Campus about the administration’s decision to cancel the event. He heard about the decision as he was arriving to his class, and though he emphasized that he did not know the details of any alleged safety concerns, felt that the choice to cancel the talk “validates our fears coming out of the Murray talk.”
He added that the administration’s cancellation of the event denied students the right to protest, another manifestation of free speech.
“In my conversations with the protesters they made it quite clear they were going to voice their concerns about inviting this guy to campus, but they were not going to try to shut him down, which is precisely which should happen,” said Dickinson.
“They lost that opportunity to express that feeling of being violated in their own home, and that’s their right here as students,” he added.
Dickinson also fears that media coverage of the events will reflect poorly on Middlebury.
“[The media] is going to portray this as, once again, Middlebury College not being able to tolerate controversial views, and that’s not the case. The students did not shut this down, they did not prevent him from speaking,” he said.
Callanan told The Campus that he already invited Legutko back to Middlebury next year. Dickinson said he hopes that Legutko will return.
“I would hope students have the opportunity to protest and engage in response to him appearing on campus in a way they weren’t able to this time because of the administration’s decisions,” Dickinson said.
Although the whole college community did not have the chance to listen to and/or protest Legutko’s talk, Dickinson was pleased with how the students in his class engaged with the speaker.
“I was very proud of Middlebury students today, very proud of them,” he said.

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