LePage lecture brings up question of dangerous free speech at Colby

Paul LePage, two-term Maine governor and former Waterville mayor, spoke in the College’s Ostrove Auditorium on Oct. 23 at the invitation of Colby Republicans.

An outspoken social conservative, LePage was met with resistance from many of the College’s faculty and students, who pointed towards some of his past public comments as evidence that his “hateful” rhetoric should not be welcomed on campus. 

“In the past, I just wasn’t aware of speakers coming to campus that had previously expressed such views out of balance with what I think we want to promote here at Colby.” Professor of Biology Ron Peck told the Echo. “I thought that since Mr. LePage’s views were so open, public, and repeated—he had repeated them so many times—that it was just an obvious case of bringing a [hateful] speaker to campus.”

Peck created a civil discourse post days before the talk, asking Colby Republicans to rescind its invitation to LePage. In his submission, he highlighted multiple instances of flagrant comments by LePage.

One of the quotes highlighted in Peck’s post was: “Let me tell you something: Black people come up the highway and they kill Mainers. You ought to look into that! You make me so sick!”

Comments on the post were heavily in favor of Peck’s stance, sparking a discussion regarding the drawbacks of unfettered free speech when safety becomes an issue.

Colby Republicans declined to address the concerns of Peck and other protestors.

“We read it all, we just chose not to respond,” explained Liam McDonough `20, who serves as publicist for the Colby Republicans.

Despite the call to withdraw the invitation, the talk proceeded as scheduled. Colby Democrats, led by co-presidents Lily Wilson `20 and Jake Nash `21, orchestrated a poster-making session and protest for the event, advertised on Civil Discourse shortly after Peck’s post. Colby Democrats sent invitations to a handful of professors, including Peck, following his post.

The civil protest began outside the auditorium prior to the event. Protesters filed in from the Spa holding black-and-white signs that included LePage quotes or direct questions. The group stationed itself on either side of the Diamond lobby, allowing for Colby community members and Waterville residents alike to head into the public event. During the protest, some of the event’s attendees stopped to have conversations with the protestors. Colby security was present throughout the event.

When it was time for the talk to begin, protesters entered the auditorium and occupied the left and right walls of the space, standing the entire time and never dropping their signs from view. The venue was completely filled.

Proceedings began with an introduction by Pugh Family Professor of Economics and Colby Republicans Faculty Advisor David Findlay. He was followed by McDonough, who urged listeners that LePage was a “kind and good man” and hoped that the audience would give him a chance to speak before jumping on him.

LePage’s talk was structured to be a majority Q&A session. He explained himself as a “product of his environment” with a hard upbringing. In regards to his position on the media, he claimed to have not read a newspaper since 2010, explaining his beliefs that newspapers, specifically the Portland Press Herald, aim to slander him and his family.

“If they fight me, I fight back,” LePage said regarding his strategy with the media.

Much of LePage’s talk involved policy. He explained that some improvements towards social issues that he outwardly seemed opposed to were actually attempts by him to achieve the same goal with a slower, safer process. For example, he claimed to be in favor of the wage increase, but opposed it because he wanted to increase wages by 50 cents a year rather than a dollar so that Maine’s infrastructure could support it.

He concluded with a discussion about immigrants, in which he specifically singled out asylum seekers as problems due to lack of medical clearance and documentation.

“It’s not that I don’t care about immigrants, I care about law and order, safety, and the health of children,” LePage contended.

As the Q&A session began, a student and a Waterville resident asked questions that allowed for LePage to answer, but these queries were followed by harder-hitting questions by frustrated students who directly referenced his flagrant quotes. LePage became visibly distressed by the questions, noticeable through interruptions and voice raising. This was matched by the crowd’s behavior, which involved yelling out of turn, laughing, and jeering when he made statements like, “I don’t have a racist bone in my body!” However, this behavior peaked before becoming any kind of safety issue.

Wilson, in reflection of the lecture when talking to the Echo, explained her issue with the style of civil discourse at Colby.

“The talk itself, I was not surprised by, but I was nonetheless disappointed in. He said so little of substance, and the things he did say, many of them were damaging and degrading to so many people,” Wilson said. “I think the protest went really well, but it’s frustrating to think that that’s where it starts and ends[…]I don’t think the purpose of this event was to engage in a serious or ongoing discourse about anything[…]and it feels frustrating that it’s perpetually sort of a letdown with these things to end it there.”

Peck added to Wilson’s point.

“I think [the event] demonstrated the flaws in the format of the talk, because essentially, Mr. LePage could make statements, and it’s very difficult to challenge those in the context of that format in real time,” he explained. “So, for example, he said, ‘I have nothing against LGBTQ people’[…]but he’s taken legal action to allow discriminiation against those people[…]So, he can just spout out all those statements, but you can’t immediately correct them or immediately respond to them. So, I guess it was civil discourse, but I guess when one side is lying and trafficking in stereotypes, it makes it difficult to have a dialogue.” 

In McDonough’s reflection of the event with the Echo, he wished to focus on LePage’s strength as a policy maker above his social views. 

“When he speaks about policy, you can tell that he cares, like he knows a lot,” McDonough said. “On the issues that I don’t necessarily agree with him, he got pressed on, and I think he handled it pretty well. I don’t actually know if he believes half of the stuff that he says[…]truthfully, if you look at a lot of some of his more controversial quotes, it makes sense that people would be upset. It seems antithetical to what a lot of people at Colby stand for, and I’m certainly not going to defend some of the bad things he said. I don’t agree with them.”

McDonough expressed his hope that bringing a potentially hateful speaker to campus (although he did not believe LePage fit this description) could potentially be a beneficial experience for the Colby community. 

“Those ideas do not go away just because you don’t invite them to Colby,” he said. “They’re still out there[…]And if you encounter that rhetoric out in the real world, you can help be the one to take it down.” 

For the future, Wilson hopes that the administration takes on a greater role when potentially hateful speakers are invited to Colby.

“It would be valid for the administration to have some kind of involvement, or to make some kind of statement,” she argued. “I do think that it’s important to seriously contemplate the role of free speech, but [ensure] that free speech doesn’t just mean unchecked liberty for someone to say what they want without serious questioning or challenging.”