Open Debate, Free Speech and Respect On Campus

By Bert Johnson, Middlebury Faculty

What did I just do?

Last week in the Middlebury Campus newspaper I published an apology for the “closed decisionmaking process” by which I offered a departmental co-sponsorship to the Charles Murray event earlier this year.

I’ve since been called lots of names online, mostly centering on my alleged cowardice, spinelessness, gutlessness, and my similarity to a show trial victim in a totalitarian regime. One Twitter user reminded me of the John Wayne quote, “Never apologize – it’s a sign of weakness.” Have I “capitulated” to the “mob”?

I don’t think so. Before I go on, let me assure readers that I am speaking only for myself – not for my department or for the college. Despite allegations to the contrary, there is not a “party line” here, and faculty, staff and students have points of view that span the spectrum.

First, I agree with what some of my faculty colleagues have said at faculty meetings: free speech is a foundational value in the academy, second only to safety and security. I was an early signatory of the Statement of Principles on Free Inquiry on Campus that my faculty colleagues Keegan Callanan and Jay Parini wrote and posted online. I am not withdrawing my signature from that petition.

I offered the departmental co-sponsorship (not endorsement) of Charles Murray’s visit and defended it under intense pressure in the days leading up to the event. Internally divided, the department did not revoke the co-sponsorship.

Further, I abhor the disruptive violence that took place on March 2. No academic department chair thinks his or her job will ever entail staying up all night trying to gather information on the extent of a colleague’s injuries.

This could have gone better. Many poor decisions were made. The instigators of the disruptions and violence, of course, bear the responsibility for their actions, which are antithetical to the principle of free speech and inquiry.

But I believe it is incumbent on us all to think about what we might have done differently to contribute to a better outcome, and what can be done generally on campuses in such situations. My research on campaign finance has convinced me that more is better than less when it comes to speech. There is little evidence that high-spending candidates “drown out” the message of others, for example. Instead, more spending by more candidates allows the public to make better judgments with more information.

Therefore, a better process for such talks might be to be to have more advance notice, discussion and consideration of various points of view. As it was, the college had little more than a week to prepare.

Because of my lack of early consultation with others, I abruptly placed my departmental colleagues into the middle of a controversy that they did not expect or ask for. Under great pressure, they accepted this challenge – but in a very compressed period.

This short notice also gave the community at large little time to react. If they had received more warning, groups could have invited other speakers, held more teach-ins or taken other steps to join the debate. Professors could also have held more discussions in their classrooms on Murray’s work and on his critics.

To be clear – I am not calling for new rules or restrictions on speakers or on speech. We should not be requiring a specific amount of advanced notice for controversial speakers.

But advanced notice and greater discussion surrounding speakers is polite. It shows respect for the community and for others who may want to contribute and respond. This enhances speech and dialogue rather than restricting it.

As I have heard time and again since the event, there are many on this campus who feel disrespected and ignored, particularly people of color. It is not a “capitulation” to recognize this fact and to try to address it. It can be done consistent with the principles of free speech.

To be sure, some conservative students have felt isolated on campus also, indicating the need for conservative speakers and for openness to discussion of conservative ideas.

My apology was narrowly focused on my own actions that contributed to this feeling of disrespect and lack of robust discussion. I meant what I said: I focused on the closed process as the problem, rather than on a specific decision.

My hope is that my message will open the door to reflection on all sides about how best to advance robust dialogue. More is better than less when it comes to speech on campus.

Bert Johnson, Chair of the Political Science Department, follows up on his apology published in last week’s edition.