Free Speech vs. Elevated Speech

By Elizabeth Lee, Middlebury Student

“Let him speak,” I hear some of my peers say, looking upon the Charles Murray protest with distaste. “He has a right to free speech.” As a firm believer in debate and civil discourse, I wonder if such a critique may be misguided.

For too long a flawed notion of ‘free speech’ has given way for individuals in marginalizing people of color and gender minorities. While I defend his right to speak his mind, I find that providing Murray with an elevated platform at a college to project his largely disproven ideas extends beyond the realm of ‘free speech’ and does more harm than good.

As Americans, we find ourselves lucky enough to be able to talk about our political beliefs without legal consequence. The government cannot throw us in jail or punish us for the words we write or the things we say. (With the exception of lying under oath, violating security procedures in contracts, and hate speech.) This is our constitutional right to free speech. In contrast, the right to free speech does not mean that individuals or institutions have a positive burden to offer all ideas a stage, a microphone and a large space for an audience to listen. It does not mean that academic institutions or students must guarantee all individuals 45 minutes of unchallenged and broadcasted speech, no matter how harmful or false the arguments are. Clearly, student protesters were not violating Mr. Murray’s First Amendment rights when they spoke out against him. They were changing the terms of the discussion.

This is not to say that students ought not engage with Mr. Murray’s ideas at all. At the point where colleges and universities have discretion over the way ideas are presented, I believe that they ought to maximize the academic experience of such ideas. They must take into account the implications of the format of the speech, official co-sponsorships and how students can meaningfully engage with the topic at hand. Students should be able to compare and contrast similar ideas in history and analyze the impact such writings had on society as a whole. To that effect, I do not think Middlebury made sufficient avenues for students to discuss, tackle and fully understand the implications of Mr. Murray’s ideas.

First, co-sponsorship by the Political Science Department and an opening speech by the President of Middlebury Laurie L. Patton, gave the speaker an aura of legitimacy. Instead of elucidating the fact that Mr. Murray has no peer-reviewed work (and his race-based analysis is largely false), the introductory remarks emphasized how influential his books have been and that he was a fellow at a think-tank. President Patton did very openly state that she disagreed with his views, but avoided saying that his work does not meet academic standards. While students have the right to bring speakers of all kinds to campus, the university itself must be responsible and academically honest when giving such events a show of approval through co-sponsorship. Students have the obligation to keep academic institutions accountable to a truthful and well-rounded education.

Second, and more importantly, the way in which Murray’s talk was formatted did not allow for equal discussion. Were students, especially students of color, expected to just sit and listen to an individual speak for 45 minutes about how they were inferior to Whites? Do Asians have to accept Murray’s false characterization that we have “higher IQ’s” than other races, and as a result become the metaphorical ‘punching bag’ for issues surrounding race and class? Where was the avenue to speak out against such ideas? How could students engage in debate on an equal playing field when Mr. Murray had a stage and a microphone, and we were just nameless and faceless members of the audience? Without a platform for legitimate debate, it seems that students had few non-disruptive tools to get their voices heard.

Free speech is not the same as elevated speech. Places of higher education must take that distinction into account when deciding which ideas deserve elevated platforms and which ones are better expressed through other means, whether it is through equal discussion or debate. The aftermath of Murray’s talk has shed light on the deep divisions within Middlebury’s campus. While reconciliation will be a painful process, I hope that we can heal and grow together, creating a mutual understanding that does not marginalize or undermine any community members’ fundamental voice or humanity.

Elizabeth Lee ’17  writes about nuances in defining free speech.