When Charles Murray came to Middlebury College on Thursday, Middlebury’s administration said the right thing.
Murray’s work has long been controversial, particularly since he co-authored The Bell Curve: Intelligence and Class Structure in American Life. Although it was not a major part of the work, the claim that got Murray in trouble concerned the gap between blacks and whites on various intelligence tests. That gap, Murray and his co-author, Richard Herrnstein, argued reflects not test bias but “differences in cognitive functioning” and those differences “likely” have something to do with both genes and the environment.
President Laurie Patton disagrees with much of what Murray has to say. But nonetheless, in the face of a letter signed by hundreds of alumni describing Murray’s invitation to speak as a “threat” to students, Patton not only refused to cancel the event but also showed up and spoke prior to Murray’s taking the stage. The “very premise of free speech on this campus,” she said, “is that a speaker has a right to be heard.”
Students also heard from Bill Burger, vice president of communications, about Middlebury’s Code of Conduct, which forbids at community events “noise or action that disrupts the audience’s ability to hear.” They were reminded that possible penalties for violating the code ran all the way up to being suspended.
None of it mattered.
Students shouted Murray down and, when the administration attempted to livestream the event from another location, the livestream was shouted down as well. It did not stop there. When Murray and his interlocutor, Professor Allison Stanger, left the student center, they were reportedly “physically and violently confronted by a group of protesters.”
This quotation is not from any onlooker but Burger. College communications people usually try to minimize stories that might reflect poorly on their place of work, but Burger, whether because he was shocked or because there was no sugarcoating what happened, added that during the “confrontation… one of the demonstrators pulled Prof. Stanger’s hair and twisted her neck. She was attended to at Porter Hospital later and (on Friday) is wearing a neck brace.”
Even that was not the end of the ordeal. Public safety officers managed to hustle Stanger and Murray into a car, but then “the protestors… violently set upon the car, rocking it, pounding on it, jumping on [it] and try[ing] to prevent it from leaving campus. At one point a large traffic sign was thrown in front of the car. Public Safety officers were able, finally, to clear the way to allow the vehicle to leave campus.”
Following on the heels of violence at Berkeley in connection with the appearance of Milo Yiannopolous, this incident at Middlebury should be a wake-up call to other campuses. There were evidently no arrests at Berkeley, even though protesters among other instances of lawbreaking, shattered windows, and threw Molotov cocktails. It is not easy to make arrests during a riot, but it would be easy for Middlebury College to at least bring students up on charges of violating the code of conduct since the protesters who shouted down Murray are on video and presumably not difficult to identify.
A college administration has reasons to exercise prudence in meting out punishments. One does not want to create free speech martyrs. It is, however, hard to imagine many Middlebury students or faculty objecting to punishment in this case, in which the protesters were clearly warned that the action they were about to take violated the school’s code of conduct and that violations might result in severe penalties. Evidently, they did not think the College cares enough about the principle President Patton enunciated, that invited speakers have a right to be heard, to take any kind of action.
If Middlebury College proves them right, and yet another group is permitted to shut down a speaker without any consequence, then Middlebury’s initial stance in favor of free speech and inquiry, however admirable, will have been proven empty. President Patton was right to issue an apology today, to concede that her own students, and not just outside agitators, were likely involved in the violence, and to express her disappointment that Middlebury had failed to live up to its “core values.”
Perhaps most importantly, Patton announced that the college would be “responding in the very near future to the clear violations of Middlebury College policy that occurred” on Thursday, suggesting that the College’s response will consist in more than strong words about its dedication to free speech. That is essential. More than words are needed.