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Is free speech an absolute? Campus debates reveal post-Murray breach

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Posted on April 27, 2017 |
By Gaen Murphree



MIDDLEBURY — Different perspectives on what happened at the Charles Murray appearance at Middlebury College on March 2 and on what the college should do in response can be seen in the conflicting measures put forth by various faculty members.

One faction at the April 7 faculty meeting emphasized free speech as a foundational value of the college and higher education in general, the other emphasized inclusivity and an inclusive process as important next steps on campus.

At the center of the discussion was the March 2 event when student protesters would not allow Murray, a fellow at the conservative American Enterprise Institute, to deliver his speech or engage in a Q&A (see story on Page 1A).

Ten faculty members introduced a motion “Related to Freedom of Expression.” It asked that language from the University of Chicago’s “Report of the Committee on Freedom of Expression” be added to the Middlebury College handbook. Chicago’s 2015 report has been adopted by a number of colleges and universities, including Princeton University, Claremont McKenna College, the University of Wisconsin and Winston-Salem State University (a historically black university).

The “Freedom of Expression Policy” emphasizes the importance of free speech as the very basis for higher education and for civil society itself.

Among its key statements: “It is not the proper role of the college to attempt to shield individuals from ideas and opinions they find unwelcome, disagreeable or even deeply offensive. Although the college greatly values civility and although all members of the college community share in the responsibility for maintaining a climate of mutual respect, concerns about civility and mutual respect can never be used as a justification for closing off discussion of ideas, however offensive or disagreeable those ideas may be to some members of our community ...

“The college’s fundamental commitment is to the principle that debate or deliberation may not be suppressed because the ideas put forth are thought by some or even by most members of the college community to be offensive, unwise, immoral, or wrong-headed. It is for the individual members of the college community not for the college as an institution, to make those judgments for themselves, and to act on those judgments not by seeking to suppress speech, but by openly and vigorously contesting the ideas that they oppose.”

A group of around 30 Middlebury College faculty members, led by film studies professor Jason Mittell, offered a counter motion that instead asked that the faculty take no deliberate action until the joint student-faculty-staff committee being created by the provost’s office have a chance to come together and begin its work.

Mittell’s motion emphasized that “the faculty are deeply committed to multiple core values, including diversity, free and open inquiry, community and inclusivity — and we recognize that these values can come into conflict in complicated ways.”

Because this motion used the language “relevant policy recommendations should be considered by this joint committee before being addressed by other policy-making bodies,” some saw the counter motion as an attempt to curtail dialogue altogether. But Mittell emphasized that the intent was to encourage dialogue while giving the nascent committee space in which to do its work.

Political science professor Bert Johnson offered the friendly amendment that the word “addressed” be changed to “voted on.” The faculty postponed voting on either motion until its May meeting.

In an interview with the Independent, Mittell emphasized that his motion was intended to put the brakes on any unilateral faculty changes in school policy before the provost’s committee provides a way for all constituencies to weigh in.

But beyond the value of what he sees as a more inclusive process, Mittell is among those on campus who believe that the idea of free speech as a value can’t be separated from the fact that all societies, ours included, afford some voices more legitimacy than others. All societies silence or marginalize some while privileging others.

“Proponents of free speech absolutism offer the metaphor of the marketplace of ideas, where everyone articulates their position and the best ideas win out,” said Mittell. “But like most real world marketplaces, it is not a level playing field. Marginalized groups often are not given equal opportunities to speak, their voices are devalued, and they often pay steeper prices in backlash to their speech.

“So for me, asserting absolutist free speech principles as the remedy for what went wrong on March 2 does not account for these real world contexts and inequalities. That is one reason that many faculty feel like we should not put forward free speech policies without simultaneously working to build more inclusivity, so that civil discourse in the public sphere can actually serve all of our community, not just those already empowered to speak.”

No one on campus, said Mittell, is saying “we believe free speech is a bad principle. No one believes that ... but in practice, in context, it can conflict with other core values. And the core value that people pointed to is a notion of inclusivity, the fact that every member of our community has equal rights as a human being and has equal rights as a voice in free speech.

“While in the abstract that is complementary to principles of free speech in practice it does come into a conflict. That’s what I think happened with the Charles Murray event in the sense that for some people they felt that Murray’s presence was a validation of his ideas and his ideas state that people are not equal and some people don’t have the right to higher education, some people don’t have an inherent equality as a human being.”

Don Wyatt, a professor of global and international studies, is among the group of 10 faculty members who proposed the “Freedom of Expression Policy” and among those for whom free speech is paramount. The group represents professors from across multiple disciplines and also includes Ata Anzali, Keegan Callanan, Stephen Donadio, Michael Kraus, Caitlin Myers, Jay Parini, Robert Schine, John Schmit and Allison Stanger.

“I think what brought us together is a common, a shared alarm that the place where we are employed and where we have considerable investment is risking becoming a setting for intolerance,” said Wyatt.

“Liberal intolerance is not any better than conservative intolerance. And the only way that civil society can really progress is by our capacity to tolerate views at variance with our own.”

Wyatt said that he’s empathetic to the anger against racism that motivated many of the students who protested against Murray but feels that “the higher vantage point is to be had in the capacity to hear someone out and call the lie or the falsehood or the distortion for exactly what it is.”

Wyatt added that he doesn’t believe free speech and inclusivity are in opposition.

“Free speech is the bedrock of diversity,” said Wyatt. “It sustains it.”

Still Wyatt and others remain hopeful that the Middlebury College community — and hopefully the nation — will find a way forward.

“I feel encouraged that we’re going to somehow sort our way through this minefield and end up in a better place as a result of sustained effort, which means being in dialog as a community,” he said.

Reporter Gaen Murphree is reached at [email protected]

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