Progress: Following Chaos and Assault at Conservative Event, Middlebury Professors Defend Free Expression

Posted: Mar 10, 2017 1:25 PM

Here's something you don't see all that often in the wake of an 'End of Discussion' anti-speech debacle on a college campus: Positive, constructive news. We wrote about the disgrace at Middlebury college last week, noting that dozens and dozens of students knowingly violated school policy by disrupting and derailing an event featuring a controversial scholar and author. They were reminded of the rules and warned not to break them prior to the attempted speech, then they did so anyway. Some in this anti-intellectual mob also broke the law, vandalizing an administrator's car and sending a (liberal) professor to the hospital after a violent scrum. The predictable national backlash in the conservative media was swift and predictable -- thankfully, however, strong push-back is also coming from other quarters. We told you about the assaulted professor's public statement of disgust and dismay, as well as a searing op/ed from an Iranian Middlebury professor. Since then, the school announced an investigation into the incidents, promising consequences for those responsible. And dozens of Middlebury faculty members signed a strong statement in support of free expression. From Daniel Menninger's excellent Wall Street Journal column on the contretemps:

Middlebury may be a turning point in this slow, steady and too often unresisted effort to replace the Founders’ First Amendment with a progressive rewrite. A few days after the Murray incident, something extraordinary happened: Some 40 Middlebury professors, from many disciplines, signed a strong statement supporting “Free Inquiry on Campus.” It was published Tuesday on this newspaper’s op-ed page. By late Wednesday the number had grown to more than 80 signers. The Middlebury Statement by these professors, some without tenure, is an important event. Their statement doesn’t merely defend free speech and inquiry. It explicitly rejects arguments by the left justifying speech suppression, such as their notion that certain ideas are themselves a form of “violence.”

The letter he mentions is outstanding. It is clear-eyed and principled, and it bats down lazy arguments employed by the outrage mob to justify their behavior. An excerpt:

Genuine higher learning is possible only where free, reasoned, and civil speech and discussion are respected. Only through the contest of clashing viewpoints do we have any hope of replacing mere opinion with knowledge. The incivility and coarseness that characterize so much of American politics and culture cannot justify a response of incivility and coarseness on the college campus. The impossibility of attaining a perfectly egalitarian sphere of free discourse can never justify efforts to silence speech and debate. Exposure to controversial points of view does not constitute violence. Students have the right to challenge and even to protest non-disruptively the views of their professors and guest speakers. A protest that prevents campus speakers from communicating with their audience is a coercive act. No group of professors or students has the right to act as final arbiter of the opinions that students may entertain. No group of professors or students has the right to determine for the entire community that a question is closed for discussion. The purpose of college is not to make faculty or students comfortable in their opinions and prejudices. The purpose of education is not the promotion of any particular political or social agenda. The primary purpose of higher education is the cultivation of the mind, thus allowing for intelligence to do the hard work of assimilating and sorting information and drawing rational conclusions.

Bravo, bravo, bravo.  And even the New York Times editorial board denounced the spectacle in relatively harsh terms, even if they couldn't resist taking a potshot at conservatives (accusing them of playing faux victims by "flopping" like soccer players.  Mary Katharine and I use this exact analogy in our book, applying it to the Left's culture of endless grievance.  The thing is, right-wing speakers have been genuinely victimized by this silencing phenomenon, almost always at the hands of Leftists pretending that uncomfortable words are akin to physical or emotional injury.  So the Times gets that piece totally backwards).  In any case, this could be a sign of an important shift.  On that score, I'll leave you with some recommendations from a University of Chicago 'free expression' task force devoted to combating illiberal trends in campus culture -- on which U of C, to its immense credit, has been a principled pioneer:

In a campus-wide announcement Tuesday, Provost Daniel Diermeier wrote that he had received a final report from a faculty committee established in May 2016 tasked with offering “recommendations about procedures for student disciplinary matters involving disruptive conduct, particularly interference with freedom of expression, inquiry, and debate.” The report...starts by recommending that the university expand its authority over disruptive conduct beyond that of a “member of the university community” to include any “individual” or “group of individuals on campus,” a revision that would apply to situations like last month’s riot at the University of California, Berkeley, during which an outside protest organization attacked police officers and destroyed property on campus. Under the newly-recommended policies, such individuals would be more strictly reprimanded by the university itself, which would reserve the right to remove “unaffiliated individuals” from campus in extreme cases. “Individuals who come to the university have the same duty to preserve the free-speech commons and refrain from engaging in disruptive conduct. The Committee believes that the university should make every reasonable effort to treat unaffiliated individuals the same way it treats affiliated people in connection with disruptive conduct,” the report suggests, noting that “when appropriate, unaffiliated individuals who engage in disruptive conduct can be barred from all or part of the university permanently or for discrete periods.”  The faculty committee’s report goes on to recommend the creation of “free-speech deans-on-call” who would be specially trained to “deal with disruptive conduct” and would be granted the authority to “if necessary, [remove] disruptive individuals from events.”

More institutions of higher learning should follow this lead, and faculty members from across the ideological spectrum should embrace the statement of principle articulated in the Middlebury letter.  Plus, this recent speech from Stanford's former provost is right on the mark. Taken together, this feels vaguely like -- what's the word? -- oh, yes, progress.