Free Speech vs. Civil Disobedience

By Thomas Leaycraft, Middlebury Student

March 2, the day of the Charles Murray talk, was never going to be easy for Middlebury. Free speech and civil disobedience, two of our nation’s most challenging and sacred traditions, seemed to collide. In this war ­of virtues, everybody lost; the mob silenced Charles Murray, the media dragged Middlebury’s name through the mud for weeks and the protesters now face punishment.

Civil disobedience is a tremendously respectable endeavor. Standing up for one’s principles in the face of certain punishment, as many in our community did to protest the ideas of Dr. Murray’s book “The Bell Curve”, even after an administrator read aloud the College’s code of conduct in the Wilson auditorium, reveals noble conviction. However, now many are demanding that the administration excuse these violations of college policy, and in essence, take a stance in this battle of ideals by deciding whether Murray’s beliefs preclude him from the right to speak freely — they should not.

Much can and has been written about the Murray incident. Even in its entirety, that week’s Campus could not contain the full range of perspectives on whether bringing controversial speakers like Murray to campus constitutes “platforming” or provides an understanding of deplorable ideas and institutions, which could be a valuable insight in the fight for change and social justice. While many find Dr. Murray’s beliefs contribute to systems of oppression and racism, Middlebury must uphold the right to free speech.

Of course, the liberal arts philosophy, Middlebury’s guiding principle, deems the sharing of widely varying ideas as indispensable to developing an understanding of the world. But furthermore, free speech is a fragile privilege and requires protection, whereas civil disobedience, by definition, does not. Upholding this privilege and measure of equality — the right to speak without censorship — is essential. A precedent that speech can be restricted is a dangerous infringement on all of our rights.

Our college made a statement on March 2 and, while I disapprove of the means by which we silenced Dr. Murray, I take some pride in belonging to a community which so passionately defends women and people of color. However, the time has come to accept the consequences of our actions. The College’s punishment of protesters serves as a defense of all of our rights to speak freely. Bernie Sanders recently said of Ann Coulter’s controversial visit to UC Berkley, “what are you afraid of — her ideas? Ask her the hard questions. Confront her intellectually.” Our freedom to denounce Murray and institutionalized injustices and Murray’s freedom of speech derive from a common, sacred privilege.

This has been a bad year for speech. The school year began with conversations surrounding the need for civility in discourse, and is ending with debates over whether or not people who say reprehensible things, or even hold deplorable beliefs, have the right to speak at all. We silenced Dr. Murray, though he came to discuss his latest book “Coming Apart”, which focuses largely on the growing rift between the values of upper and working class whites — essentially the Trump coalition — without any mention of racial supremacy or eugenics. We set a dangerous precedent: we silenced not because of what he planned to say, but because of what he believes.

Opinions Editor Thomas Leaycraft ’20 writes about punishment in the wake of the Charles Murray protests.