In response to the forced retreat by Charles Murray, the right-wing scholar and author, from a planned public lecture at Middlebury College due to student demonstrations, we need to put first things first: the incident has nothing to do with the First Amendment or academic freedom.
Before we can understand why those concepts are so routinely abused in public discussion of campus protest, we must define what they mean. The First Amendment forbids Congress from “abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press.” As many people have repeatedly pointed out, the Constitution does not guarantee you a respectful audience for your ideas, whether those ideas are odious or not. Murray is co-author of The Bell Curve, which argues that racial inequality is largely shaped by nonwhite people’s genetic inferiority, and the Southern Poverty Law Center classifies him a white nationalist who peddles “racist pseudoscience.”
As for academic freedom, it generally refers to institutional intrusion upon faculty’s freedom of teaching and research. According to the American Association of University Professors’ 1940 Statement of Principles on Academic Freedom and Tenure, “Teachers are entitled to full freedom in research and in the publication of the results, subject to the adequate performance of their other academic duties …. Teachers are entitled to freedom in the classroom in discussing their subject, but they should be careful not to introduce into their teaching controversial matter that has no relation to their subject.”
Charles Murray is employed by the American Enterprise Institute, a public-policy think tank. If the AEI believes in the principle of academic freedom for its researchers, then all inquiries about Murray’s academic freedom should be directed to the AEI. Middlebury undergraduates couldn’t deny Murray’s institutional academic freedom even if they tried.
Middlebury’s students do, however, have every right to shout him down, and by all accounts they accomplished this end. Murray’s address in a campus auditorium was disrupted by students chanting and turning their backs to the lectern; he was compelled to give a live-streamed discussion from another location on the campus. He left campus under protests so heavy that a professor with him, political scientist Allison Stanger, injured her neck in the scrum outside. Comparing the tumult after Murray’s address to a scene from the foreign-espionage thriller Homeland, Stanger said in a statement that she was deliberately attacked by protesters in the crowd -- something that never should have happened.
However, a group of Middlebury students argued that the chaotic atmosphere Stanger describes was aggravated by belligerent campus security, and their statement suggested that her injury may have simply been an accident. “Protesters did not escalate violence and had no plan of violent physical confrontation,” the statement read. “We do not know of any students who hurt Professor Stanger; however, we deeply regret that she was injured during the event.”
“So much for safe spaces,” Reason.com quipped. (Believe it or not, others made the same joke.) Others called the protesters a “mob.” In The Washington Post, law professor and blogger Eugene Volokh lamented “another sad day of brown-shirted thuggery,” arguing that it “undermines the opposition to Murray’s claims, rather than reinforcing them.” He elaborated, sort of: “Once it turns out that arguments such as the ones in The Bell Curve can’t even be made without fear of suppression or even violent attack, then we lose any real basis for rejecting those arguments.”
Obviously, one strong basis for rejecting The Bell Curve is that it is racist. But aside from that, Volokh’s strange presumption -- that disruptive opposition strengthens, rather than weakens, one’s opponents, that bad arguments somehow get stronger the less they are heard -- does not bear much scrutiny. Indeed, Murray’s claims have not gotten any better since the weekend.
One might well ask: Are college kids today fragile snowflakes cowering in their “safe spaces,” or are they brown-shirted, left-wing authoritarians? Which caricature will it be?
Dissent, for many critics of campus protest, can be tolerated as long as it is nondisruptive and officially sanctioned. The protests at the University of California, Berkeley, that chased Milo Yiannopoulos off the campus last month were unruly and damaged property, but they also may have hastened the much-deserved disgrace of a racist and sexist demagogue. In 2015, during a free speech controversy at Yale University concerning racist Halloween costumes -- which introduced “safe spaces” into the nation’s anti-student lexicon -- The Atlantic writer Conor Friedersdorf criticized young activists’ “illiberal streak” and their tendency to “lash out” with intolerance. Such incivility suppressed campus debate and inquiry, he argued. Even as Friedersdorf called out students protesters as intolerant of discomfort, however, he held them responsible for the sin of making others uncomfortable. Discomfort, it seems, is a scholarly virtue for some, but not for all.
Another example came in 2014, when Robert J. Birgeneau, the former chancellor of the University of California, Berkeley, during the suppression of Occupy protests there in 2011, withdrew from his role as commencement speaker at Haverford College’s graduation. He did so after students at the college signaled their intent to disrupt his speech. The students were widely criticized for suppressing free speech and open dialogue -- even though Birgeneau was the one who withdrew, in a pre-emptive strike against a protest that hadn’t even happened yet.
How can we hold simultaneously to a view of free speech as the circulation of disagreement while denouncing communication whose tone is disagreeable? Why are freedom of speech and academic freedom so absolute for Charles Murray yet so conditional for Middlebury students -- who surely have the academic freedom not to be told they are genetically deficient at their own college? Finally, why are higher education institutions so regularly churned through this dull meat grinder of journalistic free-speech sanctimony?
One simple answer may be the alma mater nostalgia of middle-aged journalists and academics who graduated from such institutions and, like many elders in every generation, scorn the passions of the next. The bigger issue, though, has to do with how we think about education -- or more to the point, how we fantasize about it. As Corey Robin has written, in American politics, educational institutions are often treated as laboratories for social transformations we are reluctant to pursue in society at large. “In the United States,” he writes, “we often try to solve political and economic questions through our schools rather than in society.”
College campuses, especially elite ones like Middlebury, are an interesting example of this thesis: they are treated both as laboratories for transforming society, and as leafy sanctuaries from it. Colleges are asked to model a fantasy version of society in which profound social cleavages -- racial, partisan, economic -- exist only as abstract issues that we can have a “conversation” about, rather than material conflicts that may need to be confronted. And most educational leaders and administrators, Robin writes, are basically conflict averse -- they want to “want to change words, not worlds.” Isn’t politics really just the contest of the best ideas, they seem to ask, rather than a conflict of resources and power? If presidential politics tells us anything, the answer is clearly no. But on campuses, this persistent fantasy -- of social change in which no one raises their voice -- is what critics often misidentify as academic freedom.
But what if black or Latino Middlebury students don’t want to have a conversation about their human dignity? What if they prefer to assert it? If they did so, they’d be participating in a long tradition of campus free-speech defense that many critics overlook. They’d only be doing what Mario Savio, leader of the Berkeley Free Speech Movement, famously advised in 1964: putting their “bodies on the gears” of an apparatus they call unjust.
“There’s a time when the operation of the machine becomes so odious -- makes you so sick at heart -- that you can’t take part,” Savio said. “And you’ve got to indicate to the people who run it, to the people who own it, that unless you’re free, the machine will be prevented from working at all.”
John Patrick Leary is an assistant professor of English at Wayne State University.
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