Under National Spotlight, Middlebury College Examines Speech Issues

Mar 9, 2017

A protest at Middlebury College where students shouted down a controversial conservative speaker last week continues to spark national debate

Author Charles Murray is best known for his 1994 book "The Bell Curve" in which he links lower socio-economic status with race and intelligence. His views have led the Southern Poverty Law Center to label Murray a "white nationalist."

Murray was invited to speak at Middlebury last week by a conservative student group.

At the event, student protesters turned their backs on the speaker, shouted him down for more than 20 minutes, and then did their best to disrupt Murray’s talk that was being live-streamed from a remote location on campus. Later, a group of protestors physically confronted Murray and college officials as they attempted to depart the campus.

Murray's invitation, and the protests that followed, have kicked off a new round of national debate over free speech on campus.

Matthew Dickinson is a professor in the political science department at Middlebury, which co-sponsored Murray's talk. Speaking to VPR's Vermont Edition Thursday, Dickinson said that the department's sponsorship was not an endorsement of Murray's views, and stressed the importance of students learning how to engage with opposing viewpoints.

“We think our students should have the opportunity to question the presenter about his views and the evidence he brings to bear and develop the types of skills that we think are really important for them to become functioning citizens in society at large,” Dinkinson said. “The question is from our perspective, how do you equip them to handle that. Do you tell them the proper response is to cover your eyes and your ears and say: ‘na na na, I'm not going to believe what you say?’ Or are we going to give you the tools and the analytical ability to question it?”

Linus Owens is an associate professor of sociology at Middlebury. He told VPR that Murray should not have been given a platform to speak at the college, and that condemnation of the protests ignores real harm done to the college community by the invitation.

“When we talk about bubbles, when we talk about diversity, I think the real bubbles that we need to pop are this kind of over-intellectualized understanding of what these ideas mean and how they affect the students and faculty and staff on our campus,” Owens said. “I think it's something that we have to take seriously and not dismiss through the language of ‘snowflakes’ and ‘safe spaces’ and all this kind of stuff. These people actually don't experience Middlebury as a safe space. And I think bringing in Charles Murray says: ‘you know what? We don't care.’”

Middlebury College President Laurie Patton has announced an independent investigation into the protests.