NESCAC News: Middlebury’s new speaker policy

Campus turmoil and debate over freedom of speech and speakers on campus is not as easily forgotten as last semester’s courses. Middlebury College’s incident with guest speaker Charles Murray and student protesters dominated national news cycles and is often cited in debates on freedom of speech on campuses. In 2016, a Middlebury student group, the American Enterprise Group, which describes itself on their website as interested in limited federal government and a strong national defense, invited author Charles Murray to speak. Murray is a political scientist and author known for his 1994 book The Bell Curve, where he stated that socioeconomic status is related to race and intelligence. Student protesters said that his beliefs were racist. Sixty seven students were sanctioned for their role in the protest, which turned violent. Students pulled fire alarms, and masked protesters shoved Murray and the faculty interviewer, Allison Stanger, and rocked their car back and forth and jumped on the hood. Stanger sustained a concussion after a protester pulled her hair and twisted her neck.

The New York Times reported that the sanctions against students ranged from probation to an official college disciplinary action with a permanent record on a student’s transcript. No students were suspended or expelled.

In response to this incident, Middlebury announced a policy change for speakers and events last week. On Sept. 15, 2017, Provost Susan Bladridge announced over email some “interim procedures” concerning events and speakers to the Middlebury community. The policy was later posted on the Newsroom on Middlebury’s website. Although the Murray incident was not directly referenced, she referred to Charlottesville and other recent threats against colleges as an incentive for updated event policies. The new procedures include requires all event scheduling requests to be reviewed by staff weekly to pinpoint any events that could be controversial and “in the event of a credible likelihood, based on prior incidents or current evidence, that an event is likely to be the target of threats or violence, the Threat Assessment and Management Team will conduct a risk assessment of the event.” In cases where the Threat Assessment and Management Team identifies significant risk to the community, the president and senior administration will work with the event organizers to revise the event plan, but “in cases of imminent and credible threat to the community that cannot be mitigated by revisions to the event plan would the president and senior administration consider canceling the event.” Although Bladridge emphasized that these policies are temporary, she stated that faculty, staff and students would work to create a permanent policy. Bladridge also highlighted the importance of freedom of speech at Middlebury, writing “Middlebury is a place devoted to the fundamental values of free expression and academic freedom.”

Chandler Nemetz, class of 2018 at Middlebury, said “I do believe that there needs to be a new policy put in place to address the risk of speakers before they are brought on campus. However, this can potentially limit the overall range of thoughtful voices that can speak on campus.”

These new policies have already attracted national attention, largely in part to a prominent alumni tweeting his opinion. Ari Fleischer, class of 1982, was White House Press Secretary under President George W. Bush, now runs a media company, Ari Fleischer Sports Communications, and regularly contributes to Fox News. Fleischer has returned to Middlebury as a guest speaker on multiple occasions, most recently as a guest of the Middlebury College Republicans. On Sept. 15, the same day the policy changes were announced, Fleischer tweeted “Heads up to reporters who cover First Amendment Issues. @Middlebury later today will announce a policy that rewards the heckler’s veto” and “Speakers will not be allowed on campus if groups on campus say they will shut down the speeches. Midd will actually legitimize the heckler’s veto.”

Colby assistant professor of English Aaron Hanlon, known for his opinion piece “Advice for My Conservative Students” in the New York Times, said that the Middlebury policy could be used to shut down discourse. “I do think there’s a risk that the Middlebury policy could be used in bad faith by groups who simply disagree with certain speakers,” he said. However, he cautioned rejecting the new policy, saying that colleges are in a difficult position. “Events in Charlottesville, Berkeley, Seattle and elsewhere have shown us that violent protest on the left and right are real threats to force colleges to put imperfect policies in place… physical safety can’t be overlooked or dismissed as simply kowtowing to the ‘heckler’s veto.’”

The attitude towards hate speech and the role speakers play on campus has changed in the past few years — Professor Hanlon wrote his New York Times piece that 2016 was a record year for withdrawing invitations from speakers, mostly related to backlash from students.

However, colleges increasingly need to balance freedom of speech and open discourse with safety concerns. Hanlon said that “Colleges–which have a fundamental responsibility to protect the physical safety of everyone on campus–are in the tough position of having to weigh the risks of violence like we saw in Charlottesville against ideals about the kind of safe, open, rigorous exchange of ideas that we must strive for.”