The Nuances of Free Speech on Campus

by / editorial (2) in Opinions /

On Thursday, Nov. 15, Olav Ljosne, senior manager of international operations at Royal Dutch Shell, came to campus to speak on a variety of topics, including the future of energy demand and conflict surrounding oil. Both students and members of the faculty filled the Robert A. Jones ’59 (RAJ) Conference Room to hear the talk, titled “Meeting Future Energy Needs.” Unlike the day before at the University of Vermont, where a group of climate justice activists interrupted Ljosne to the extent that his presentation could not proceed, those in attendance at the College did allow for Ljosne to speak during his allotted time. However, the talk was not without interruptions. Before Ljosne began, two students presented him with a fake diploma while graduation music played, congratulating him for engaging in “multiple human rights violations consistent with the practices of the Middlebury College endowment.” During the question period at the end of the talk, two other students became agitated, accusing Ljosne of being a liar, before falling to the floor in protest. However, a student drew applause from some members of the audience when, in response, he told his peers that they were embarrassing the College and should stop.

The question we ask ourselves in light of these events concerns the status of free speech on this campus. To what extent are students willing to tolerate such behavior as was exhibited by the protesters, some of whom are members of the Dalai Lama Welcoming Committee (DLWC)? Clearly, opinions diverge. Some find the means through which these students expressed themselves to be entirely consistent with the severity of the topic at hand, which dealt in part with accusations against Shell of human rights violations in Nigeria. Others, however, consider such behavior offensive and disrespectful, not only to Ljosne, who made the effort to come to campus, but also to those in attendance who wanted to learn more about Shell’s position and engage in sincere, constructive dialogue.

It seems clear that the protesters at Thursday’s meeting aimed to spark thoughtful discussion around Shell’s practices. Though many on campus may agree with the criticisms raised by this group of students, their actions, ironically enough, appeared to inhibit dialogue to a far greater degree than to facilitate it. As in the aftermath of the false press release sent out by the DLWC, once again the student body is left deciphering the actions of a small group, as opposed to critically analyzing the content of the issue at hand. Substantive discussion regarding Shell’s oil practices in Nigeria is largely absent from the current dialogue on campus, replaced with chatter about the drama that unfolded at Thursday’s talk. Certainly, the dialogue that ensues such protest cannot be entirely controlled by the protesters themselves; it is up to the students to decide whether or not they will focus on the critical issues. However, protesters do have the ability to project an inviting manner, engaging more students and promoting a more productive dialogue.

The current reality shows the paralyzing effects resulting from protest that polarizes a portion of the student body. Activism that engages many groups of people is not necessarily weak activism; in fact, throughout history, the most successful movements demonstrate that there is great strength in numbers. The efforts of a small group, however worthy they may be, will ultimately fail unless they solidify a broader following by appealing to more people and including those with slightly different viewpoints. Activists may also find that educating students on the issues before a controversial speaker arrives will help to facilitate constructive dialogue. While some of the activists at Thursday’s meeting hold forums each Friday to discuss issues with the college community, how inviting are such events to others who feel intimidated by the group’s aggressive tactics? Further, activists should look to diversify how they communicate, expanding beyond the spaces they establish; it shouldn’t matter what platform or forum is used — a productive conversation can happen anywhere, from Proctor tables to Middblog, and should not take place solely on their terms.

Taking a step back, we see that the real issue here is not between Middlebury students and a visiting representative from Shell. Certainly, students owe guest speakers who come to campus a certain degree of respect, even if they disagree vehemently with that speaker’s opinion. For the most part, protesters at Thursday’s meeting did allow Ljosne to speak.

The crux of the issue, then, is the relationship between the protesters and their peers — the rest of the student body. Middlebury students are bright, incredibly passionate people who bring different skills and perspectives to the table. As members of a small college community, we are somewhat surprised to see those with whom we attend class and interact on a daily basis challenge authority in such an overt manner. Protest does not necessarily have to be loud and dramatic to be effective; taping their mouths during Ljosne’s talk, showing solidarity by dressing in one color or picketing outside the RAJ are alternate methods that might have been less polarizing and more effective. The reason we remain focused on the methods and drama of the situation instead of the content of the matter itself reflects the fact we are accustomed to the type of constructive, inclusive discussion in which all can voice their opinions and contribute.

Free speech on campus has many dimensions — it implies an atmosphere that encourages collaboration and open exchange of divergent ideas, as well as tolerance of others. In this case, we must tolerate those who protest a visiting speaker, as well as acknowledge the right of the speaker himself to express his ideas, and the rights of other students to speak their minds. Just because others choose not to show their frustration as dramatically as the protesters does not mean that they do not care deeply about the issues. Some students, for example, asked questions that reflected thought and research. The protesters’ satirical performance overshadowed, and potentially dissuaded, those who wanted to ask pointed questions in a more traditional manner. Further, receiving a reply one does not agree with — a reply that appears veiled in corporate rhetoric — may be incredibly powerful in itself; Middlebury students deserve the opportunity to be critical listeners, and hearing a stock response from a Shell representative may send a stronger signal to the student body than any amount of interruption.

Learning, progress and development of a consensus takes place in a welcoming environment, such as that of a Middlebury classroom in which professors and students alike are respected instead of ridiculed. Though classrooms may be better suited for discussion than action, we must bring these practices of dialogue into the real world. Instead of utilizing divisive tactics not conducive to constructive conversation or the inclusion of others, we as students should identify our common interests and join together to promote the type of change many of us hope for. Undoubtedly, the work we could accomplish together far exceeds that which we achieve as separate entities.

  • David Call

    It’s hilarious to me, and to the outside world, how foolish and sanctimonious you sound. In a world full of bullying campaigns, you celebrate Bill McKibben…and who says Americans don’t understand irony. You allow thugs with fascist tendencies to thrive because you are completely unable to simply explain that with rights come responsibilities. in doing so, you continue to devalue the Middlebury degree. please stop.

    • Thomas

      You mean Ljosne and other corporate executives are “thugs with fascist tendencies”? Or Middlebury students that shut up other students and by doing so protecting corporate interests?
      And with “responsibilities” – you mean responsibilities for people that suffer all aroud the world because of the practice of our endowment?