College campuses around the country have experienced a slew of violent protests against invited speakers, as students protest guests they deem unworthy and prevent them from sharing their views.
Though Penn has a history of protecting free speech on campus, it is not completely immune from similar incidents. Just last year at Penn, former CIA Director John Brennan was silenced by progressive protesters. After the event, the administration reaffirmed the University’s commitment to free speech, calling it a “treasured freedom.”
However, it seems as if the frequency and intensity of these protests are increasing. Just two weeks ago, the oft-controversial scholar Charles Murray was invited to speak at a university-sanctioned debate at Middlebury College. The initial protests — though peaceful — did not allow Murray to speak, causing him and his fellow debater, liberal Middlebury professor Allison Stanger, to relocate to a different site in order to livestream their conversation. The protesters found them there, too, and proceeded to bang on the windows and set off fire alarms. Afterward, as Murray and Stanger exited the building with Middlebury’s Vice President for Communications, Bill Burger, a mob attacked them, shoving Stanger and yanking her hair, causing her to be admitted to the hospital for whiplash and a concussion.
The violence has been largely condemned by all, and for this I am grateful. But I do not write to pile on in condemnation of the violence that occurred, but rather to discuss the misplaced responses we have seen.
Middlebury College’s official “News Room” reported that the College’s student newspaper published more than two dozen opinion pieces in print and online in its March 9 issue. As explained by Middlebury, most of these columns argue “that the Murray event should not have been scheduled, should not have been co-sponsored by the political science department, should not have been attended by President Patton, or should not have been allowed to go ahead once the controversy emerged.” Similarly, the Middlebury Student Government Association is reportedly considering a resolution that would prevent controversial speakers like Charles Murray from coming to campus in the future.
The response by Middlebury students has not been to outright condemn the protesters who wish to shut down speech, but to instead criticize the university, and even those who were the subject of violent attacks, for having created the environment for this to occur. As if the protesters themselves were not to blame, as if they could not help themselves or as if they were in the right to do so.
The line of reasoning from students, it would seem, is to expect the university to preempt all violence by shutting down any possibly controversial speaker that could cause students to erupt in a protest. Yet this is not the purpose of higher education, and indeed reveals a terrifying state of events in college campuses today. I will not turn this into a discussion of safe spaces and coddled college students. Rather, it is about how we as a society will respond, if at all, to a disturbing trend across the country.
Stanger, a professor who disagrees with Charles Murray yet wished to debate his views, has been recovering from the mob’s attack for a week in a dark room. This past Monday she gave a tepid response in The New York Times entitled, in part, “Understanding the Mob.” She does not condone the violence, saying that there is “no excusing what happened.” Her article is clearly conciliatory, and attempts to help us answer, “How on Earth could this could have happened?”
However, Stanger’s article veers from bridge-building and enters the dangerous territory of justifying the actions of the Middlebury students. Of the peaceful protesters, she references the “righteous anger” which nonetheless prevented Murray from speaking. She is wrong that the students acted in some sort of morally-justifiable anger. She herself notes that professors at Middlebury condemned Murray without reading his work, and students followed suit. Theirs was not an anger of informed moral outrage, but of willful ignorance. Ignorant anger is not justified with nice intent, especially when that anger impinges on free speech and the rights of other students to engage with ideas.
“But racist, sexist, anti-gay bigots should never have a platform, their free speech doesn’t count,” the progressives will respond. I certainly understand and sympathize with the argument, though I will leave aside for the moment the fact that Charles Murray is hardly a white supremacist, is married to an Asian-American woman and supports gay marriage. Certainly, the health and safety of minority students ought to be protected, and their right to exist never questioned. But who decides which viewpoints are too prejudiced to be heard? Who ought to be the arbiter of this question? It seems to me as if these conversations are precisely the ones which ought to be happening on college campuses.
The responses from those most involved — students and professors at Middlebury — have been lukewarm or misplaced at best. How will our broader society respond to silencing protests and violent mobs? How will we respond as Penn students? Do we react with fear, making it harder for opposing viewpoints to be heard? Or do we react with even more opening, and allowing the great competition of ideas to weed out the truly racist, sexist and bigoted views?
Our response must be to guard our commitment to free speech and the competition of ideas as a treasured freedom in higher education.
TAYLOR BECKER is a College senior from Lebanon, Ore., studying political science. His email address is firstname.lastname@example.org. “Right Angles” usually appears every other Wednesday.
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