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College wrestles with how to handle right-wing speaker

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Posted on April 22, 2019 |
By Christopher Ross



College cancels lecture Legutko_cmyk 0004 by Benjy.jpg
RIGHT-WING POLITICIAN Ryszard Legutko leaves the Robert A. Jones ’59 House at Middlebury College on Wednesday after a talk before a political science class. College administration canceled a public talk by Legutko that day because of security concerns. Benjy Renton/Middlebury Campus

MIDDLEBURY — Just hours before Polish right-wing politician and philosopher Ryszard Legutko was scheduled to deliver a lecture at Middlebury College last Wednesday, college officials canceled the event, citing safety concerns.

“This decision was not taken lightly,” wrote college Provost Jeff Cason and Dean of Students Baishakhi Taylor in a public statement that afternoon. “It was based on an assessment of our ability to respond effectively to potential security and safety risks for both the lecture and the event students had planned in response.”

The decision recalls the college’s experience on March 2, 2017, when protesters shut down a talk by conservative author Charles Murray, after which masked protesters violently confronted Murray and injured a faculty member who was escorting him.

That incident, along with similar ones at colleges nationwide, has generated heated debate over free speech and the ways colleges and universities select and validate controversial speakers.

Legutko, a member of the European Parliament, has been criticized for promoting homophobia, and his Law and Justice Party, the majority party in the Polish parliament, has been accused of threatening democratic values in Poland and of promoting an anti-gay platform ahead of national and European elections this fall.

By the morning of the scheduled event at Middlebury, more than 700 members of the college community had signed an open letter expressing opposition to academic sponsorship of Legutko’s lecture.

“We firmly believe that Ryszard Legutko’s actions and rhetoric violate Middlebury College’s Community Standards,” the letter said.

Students had also planned an “extremely non-disruptive” protest of the event.

“We have no intention to prevent Legutko from speaking or to prevent our peers from attending,” wrote protest organizers in a public statement on Wednesday. “During this protest, we will be distributing flyers which detail Legutko’s history of hateful speech against LGBTQ+, Muslim, and Jewish folks, as well as women and (people of color).”

(Click here to read the Middlebury Campus article, which we posted on our website on Thursday.)

Middlebury junior Grace Vedock, a protest organizer, told the Middlebury Campus newspaper that “we have reiterated at every step of the process that we did not want to impede his right to speak.”

Protest organizers on Friday issued a statement faulting college officials for ignoring their requests to be clear that the protesters did not themselves pose a “security threat.”

Provost Cason and Dean of Faculty Andi Lloyd later that day sent an email to all faculty (students also got the email) stating clearly that threats from the protesters was not the reason the speech was canceled.

People on campus saw trouble brewing on Tuesday. The event was moved there from Bicentennial Hall to Kirk Alumni Center, which is at the golf course and not in the heart of the campus.

In response to growing concerns on campus, the Political Science Department and the Rohatyn Center for Global Affairs, which had both co-sponsored the Legutko lecture, hastily scheduled a panel discussion on “Populism, Homophobia, and Illiberal Democracy,” which was chaired by Political Science Professor Erik Bleich.

“It may provide some tools for students as they consider the kinds of questions they want to ask Legutko in order to press him on his stances,” Bleich wrote in his event announcement.

But the campus community never got the chance to ask its questions.

After college officials canceled the event, Legutko made an unpublicized visit to a political science class and there delivered an abbreviated version of his lecture, which was titled after his 2016 book, “The Demon in Democracy: Totalitarian Temptations in Free Societies.” Part of his appearance was broadcast online by the Middlebury Campus newspaper.

College officials would not elaborate on the nature of the their security concerns, except to say that they were ill-equipped to deal with potential crowds.

“Hundreds of people had expressed their intent to be on the scene and this does not include those that would have been inside at the lecture,” Sarah Ray, director of media relations, told the Independent. “This is far more people than we would normally have for such an event and our staffing wasn’t sufficient to ensure adequate safety measures.”

Middlebury College president Laurie Patton issued a statement the following day acknowledging that the decision to cancel Legutko’s lecture was difficult but that it “does not define who we are.”

“Over the past two years, we have constructively engaged many controversial speakers, demonstrated peacefully and persuasively, and stayed in conversation with each other over very difficult issues,” Patton wrote. “We will continue to do so.”

In a Campus op-ed, Bleich spoke to a divided campus community.

“We have to uphold the freedom of our faculty colleagues to invite or co-sponsor speakers they feel will contribute to important intellectual discussions,” he wrote. At the same time, “We must also acknowledge that some speakers inflict pain on members of marginalized communities through the symbolic power of the platform that we provide them. We need to develop better strategies and policies for this reality, recognizing that the solutions for this challenge are nowhere near as straightforward as simply letting the speaker speak.”

The Alexander Hamilton Forum, which organized Legutko’s visit, announced that it has invited him to return to campus next fall.

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