The Student Newspaper at Middlebury College

The Middlebury Campus

SGA Debates the Future of Free Speech on Campus

By KYLE NAUGHTON

On April 30, Feb Senator Rae Aaron ’19.5, First Year Senator Jack Goldfield ’20, and Ivan Valladares ’17 presented their Academic Freedom and Viewpoint Diversity Resolution to the Student Government Association (SGA). The legislation called for Middlebury College to reaffirm its commitment to the preservation of free speech by allowing outside speakers to present controversial views without fear of disruptive protest.

The bill’s cosponsors argued that such a resolution would work towards fostering an open and inclusive atmosphere where opposing viewpoints may be properly debated without the presence of censorship or unruly violence. Proponents for the resolution asserted that the goals of free speech and social justice are not mutually exclusive and that this resolution would still protect students’ right to constructive protest.

“The resolution brought forward was one which we felt could lay the framework for any conversation on campus through reaffirming Middlebury’s commitment to free and diverse speech,” Senator Goldfield said. “We branded this resolution as one about discussion.”

The strongest opponents of the bill argued that it would threaten students’ right to justified and necessary disruptive protest in the future in favor of an ill-defined notion of free speech. Many senators also felt uncomfortable about voting on this legislation while many Middlebury students faced charges related to the Charles Murray protests.

When the Senate reconvened on May 7th, the resolution’s cosponsors were intent on putting their legislation to a vote despite President Toy’s suggestion that they table it for next year. Senator Aaron and Senator Goldfield asserted that many of their constituents desired such a reaffirmation now, and that pushing off the vote would only be perceived as an aversion to discussing free speech.

President Toy then proposed the inclusion of a friendly amendment regarding community wellbeing and an unfriendly amendment that called for the removal of certain “whereas” clauses. Senators may propose unfriendly amendments to proposed legislation that the Senate may vote to include; if the authors accept these amendments, the changes become friendly amendments. After the cosponsors of the bill rejected this unfriendly amendment, the resolution was brought to a vote and eventually rejected with a tally of 9 opposed, 6 in favor, and 4 abstained.

Senator Aaron was particularly disappointed by these results. While she admitted that the resolution did not attempt to define free speech or hate speech, she still considered this resolution to be a necessary step towards countering the divide on campus regarding social justice and the freedom of expression.

“The fact that this resolution on free speech and viewpoint diversity didn’t pass is quite concerning,” said Senator Aaron. “It really brought to light the failure on behalf of the SGA to unify around the importance — especially for marginalized voices on campus — of having the right to express ourselves, exercising judgment on what is appropriate.”

Senator Aaron also expressed her dissatisfaction with the way in which fellow senators approached the resolution after it was first presented on April 30.

“[One senator] cowardly refused to share the resolution with [their] constituents and attempted to table the resolution in the middle of our conversation,” Aaron said. “President Toy had all week to propose friendly amendments, and instead chose to force unfriendly amendments to undermine the integrity of the resolution’s message. [Also,] the Senators who sponsored a bill on updating College protest policies failed to even show up to the [May 8] meeting [to vote].”

Ivan Valladares ’17 echoed Senator Aaron’s concerns, interpreting the SGA’s approach towards the legislation as an offense against freedom of speech within Middlebury.

“Narrow interests and cowardice at the SGA attempted to make this resolution irrelevant,” Valladares said, “instead of utilizing this opportunity to establish a much-needed baseline on how to proceed with dialogue on campus. Short-term pursuits have limited students to regard free speech as a dispensable issue, or worst, a partisan ploy.”

Senator Pustejovsky, who voted against the resolution, argued that such legislation was presented at a particularly difficult time on campus when many Murray protestors are going before the judicial board.

“For me, the college community has not even scratched the surface on what free speech means to us, and what it should look like on this campus,” said Senator Pustejovsky. “Pushing a bill through Senate to make a statement about [free speech] left me feeling out of touch with the greater conversation as a whole. I also was worried about the way protest as a viewpoint was clearly undervalued and rejected in this bill, which felt like it was ignoring the larger issue at hand.”

Senator Fleischer echoed many of Senator Pustejovsky’s concerns regarding the bill’s timing, adding that such legislation would contradict the Protest Policy Reform Bill passed on April 23.

“Just a few of [the resolution’s] problems,” Fleischer said, “[regarded its position] that non-violent disruptive protest is never justified, its direct contradiction to the recently passed Protest Policy Reform bill, and its asking for administration to ‘enforce the policies as set forth in the Student Handbook.’”

Senator Wilson disagreed that the resolution was presented at an inappropriate time, attributing attempts to table the bill to fears of negative mainstream media coverage.

“I think there was an effort to table the bill until next year,” Wilson said, “because some think it reflects poorly on the College for a bill affirming free speech to fail. [Certain] senators said they believed it was an inappropriate and insensitive time to pass such a bill when so many students are currently going before the judicial board. I understand that argument, but I think it is overly concerned with perceptions and optics of the bill rather than with what the bill is actually saying.”

President Toy maintained that the bill was introduced too quickly to properly address the issue of free speech on campus. 

“My biggest concern was that this bill was be being voted on at the same time that the judicial proceedings against students involved in the protests are occurring,” President Toy said. “This was a very comprehensive bill being voted on in a fairly rushed manner, when the student body has just started making progress in conversations on what free speech means. I would rather Senate get it right than vote down a well-written but not yet perfected bill, which is unfortunately what happened.”

3 Comments

3 Responses to “SGA Debates the Future of Free Speech on Campus”

  1. Lowell Ross on May 11th, 2017 6:07 pm

    The opposition to Murray was justified and the administration failed in their responsibility to the students. Everybody wants to present this as a free speech issue and an issue of academic freedom, but it isn’t. Murray’s not an academic; he has spent his career working for think tanks who made it clear to him that his job is to provide an academic gloss to white supremacy and government policies directed toward the concentration of wealth. He’s a hack. He basically hijacked Middlebury’s reputation; he got to sit in front of a Middlebury backdrop and have a Middlebury professor call him a “scholar” and an “intellectual” and serve him floaters like “Do you have a responsibility as an intellectual to consider that these great truths you’ve discovered might be used by evil people to serve their nefarious ends?”

    I’m very interested in this sort of thing; I have a kid at Haverford and they’re trying to work out what to do with interactions between students, and of course the issue of inflammatory speakers is something that is bound to be of interest there and at every school There’s been lots of commentary about the incidents at Berkeley and at your school, and at Villanova, and lots of bleating about “free speech!” “academic freedom!” “listen to other viewpoints!” that doesn’t show a lot of thought or understanding about what’s going on.

    I got Murray’s “Coming Apart” book out of the library and I am reading it so you don’t have to, and I watched Stanger’s discussion with Murray and I watched it so you don’t have to. Based just on reading the book, I cannot say with certainty that it isn’t meant as a joke. It’s only by examining Murray’s past behavior that I can say that he means it to be taken seriously.

    He defines two economic classes and he divides them based on “industriousness” “honesty” “marriage” and “religiosity” and he says that their different economic states are associated with how prevalent these characteristics are among them. For “industriousness” he looks at hours worked and observes that people with working-class jobs have shown a decline in hours worked per week over the last several decades and concludes that this shows that their attitude toward work has deteriorated. He handwaves away any effects that declining wages might have; he does examine changes that might have been wrought by the collapse of whole communities centered around a single large employer when that employer leaves. He does not examine the difference between spending 40 hours sitting in a chair and telling other people what to do, in exchange for $1000 per hour; and spending 40 hours walking while carrying heavy objects for $12 per hour.

    He associates honesty with crime statistics and bankruptcy; he does not explain what crimes are and aren’t associated with dishonesty. He uses a single source to conclude that bankruptcy filings are more associated with what he calls irresponsible spending rather than medical expenses and other financial reverses (in contrast to substantial research on the subject). He says that it is impossible to determine whether honesty in business dealings has declined among the “upper classes”

    He concludes that the class separation has been bad for the “lower classes” because the “upper classes” do not “preach what they practice” – that is, they do not sit in judgment of the “lower classes” and act as scolds, telling them to “mend their irresponsible ways.”

    What is there to say about that sort of thing other than “Why are you here? Is this some kind of joke?”

    You know Professor Stanger; I don’t. I’m an outsider. She MUST be better than she appears in her conversation with Murray. But in her conversation she talks about things like how you can analyze data to show that women generally don’t score as well in math as men; and how that sort of thing can be misinterpreted; she talks about how one of her colleagues who is proficient with statistics says the numbers appear right but she’d like to see the underlying data, and regression table and things. At that point, I had to take a break because my head hurt.

    All this misses the mark, which is that he does not even present a coherent argument, let along define and collect relevant data, and still less show how the data support his argument. I’m just some random nobody; why is it that I can see this but Stanger can’t?

    Stanger keeps calling him a “scholar” and an “intellectual,” it appears just from the video that all she is thinking about is that he is “One of Us.” He comes to your school and sits in front of a backdrop patterned with your school seal, and lets him (basically unchallenged) to gain credibility from being able to speak at YOUR school while he defines other people as “lesser” and “morally degenerate.”

    It’s not an issue of academic freedom; it’s not anything like an academic debate. It’s being put on a platform to issue a press release. No wonder so many of you rose up in protest.

    Obviously the violence and destruction of property was intolerable to everybody, including the protesters. As I understand it, the black-masked thugs were all non-student invaders and if they can be identified they should be prosecuted. They call themselves antifa, but they are not entitled to be called that; I think they are just looking for excuses to hurt people.

    Every campus needs make sure it’s secure from people like that, and it would be a good idea for protesters to coordinate security. Any protesters (if any) who put a hand on anybody, or damaged any property, or blocked anybody’s motion, I think should be expelled. The people who made noise and yelled, I have a great deal of sympathy, but I don’t know whether it was wrong to do it or not. There’s a strong argument for making the students who are members of AEI feel that they are respected as members of the community.

    Also, as a matter of strategy, when some hack gets invited to campus to promote a book of faux scholarship, why not get a few volunteers to get ready? Have them take a look at the book and just pull it apart. If somebody says he wants to come to campus in the spirit of academic debate, GIVE him an academic debate.

    I agree with the general idea of free speech, but I think that you’re right to tread carefully here. It’s good to take into account the fact that there’s a difference between “free speech” and allowing on campus any white supremacist hack that wants to borrow your school’s credibility to help him pretend to be a scholar.

    [Reply]

  2. Morgan Evans on May 25th, 2017 4:43 am

    Diversity of Thought is clearly lacking in campus. Shame on both the Midd Admin and student leaders for not promoting it.

    [Reply]

  3. Stanley Robbins on June 6th, 2017 7:27 pm

    In a democracy the views of the minority–however obnoxious–have to be protected by the majority–that is the basis of civil rights in our country.

    Maybe Murray is a hack and it sounds like you are volunteering to head up the Middlebury Hack Determination Committee (aka the MHDC). My question: how do you reconcile my definition of a hack (e.g. Lowell Ross) with your definition of a hack? You sound like you believe that some among us (e.g. Lowell Ross) have what my mother often referred to as “the true revealed faith.”

    [Reply]