Another Speaker Unable to Appear at Middlebury

College cites safety issues in calling off talk by conservative Polish scholar and politician.

April 18, 2019
 
Ryszard Legutko

A little more than two years ago, Middlebury College students shouted down Charles Murray, the controversial writer whom many accuse of espousing racist ideas, preventing him from giving a public lecture at the college. While Murray was not the first speaker blocked from speaking on a campus, his case captured national attention. Although Middlebury later punished many of those found to have prevented him from speaking (videotape captured the incident), many accused the college of failing to protect free expression.

On Wednesday, another controversial figure was slated to give a talk at Middlebury. Again, protests were planned against the speaker, although it is unclear if those protests would have disrupted the speech -- a violation of Middlebury rules and the norms of campus discourse. This time Middlebury called off the event, citing safety concerns.

An email that went out to the campus hours before the scheduled appearance by Ryszard Legutko said, "In the interest of ensuring the safety of students, faculty, staff and community members, the lecture by Ryszard Legutko scheduled for later today will not take place. The decision was not taken lightly. 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 email was signed by Jeff Cason, the provost, and Baishakhi Taylor, dean of students.

They went on to write that due to location changes and an increased number of expected attendees, "we didn't have the staff capacity" to assure safety.

The Alexander Hamilton Forum, a group at Middlebury that invited Legutko, indicated that it would invite him again in the fall, and a Middlebury spokeswoman indicated that the college was open to that visit, consistent with "standard" event scheduling rules.

While he was unable to speak in a public lecture, Legutko did appear in a political science class, some of which was live-streamed to Facebook.

Legutko is a professor of philosophy at Jagiellonian University, in Kraków. He is also a member of the European Parliament and is associated with far-right views that have growing support in Eastern Europe. He has offended many groups, and criticism at Middlebury has noted his support for discrimination against gay people. His fans note his stance against dictatorship in the era when the Soviet Union controlled Poland.

An open letter circulating on campus questions sponsoring "a speaker who blatantly and proudly expounds homophobic, racist, xenophobic, misogynistic discourse." Bringing such a speaker to campus amounts to "shutting out large swaths of the Middlebury community, all of whom are engaged, critical and rigorous thinkers whose energies would be better spent not combating degrading and dehumanizing rhetoric."

A recent Middlebury graduate who is from Poland published a letter in the student newspaper in which he said in part, "I am all for Middlebury inviting speakers that hold views different than those of the campus majority. But you could at least seek speakers who are not bigots and hypocrites."

Keegan Callahan, assistant professor of political science and director of the Alexander Hamilton Forum, circulated another letter about the planned visit. While noting that many respect Legutko, the letter stressed the value of the college having speakers with a range of views.

"We treat all Middlebury students as independent thinkers with a right to and capacity for free and open inquiry," the letter said. "We are committed to viewpoint diversity and freedom of thought. We believe that through the competition of ideas, each of us can better understand our own deepest convictions and make progress in the pursuit of truth. We believe that Middlebury students deserve to hear a multiplicity of perspectives, including the views of influential scholars with whom we might disagree strongly."

As word spread Wednesday about another conservative figure being unable to speak at Middlebury, some academics far from campus spoke out against what happened. Robert George, a Princeton University professor who has defended the right of controversial academics (on the left and right) to speak, offered a series of tweets.

The decision by Middlebury came just a few weeks after Beloit College, a liberal arts institution in Wisconsin, shut down a planned speech by Erik Prince, an associate of President Trump and the controversial founder of the security company Blackwater. Administrators canceled Prince’s chat following student protests in which they banged on drums and built a barricade of chairs on the stage where Prince was due to give his talk.

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