You Are Not Welcome Here, Mr. O’Keefe


James O’Keefe’s descent onto Middlebury’s campus, by infiltrating our email system from his cryptic Gmail account and another account belonging to the purportedly-fake Preservation Society, is infuriating. His impending attempts to manipulate interviews of students’ passionate beliefs are a slap to our entire community’s face. For O’Keefe to state that free speech is under attack on campus is one farcical claim. For him to arrive in Middlebury, though, and propagate this is a wholly blasphemous idea. He and his ideas have no legitimacy or space at Middlebury.

James O’Keefe is not the model figure for integrity. Ironically, this is a critical pillar of free speech. When integrity is bypassed in speech for the selfish and wrongful means of pushing one’s dangerous beliefs on others, the boundary between free speech and unlawful speech has been crossed. Hate speech, by virtue of being aggravated, disorderly, and connected to criminal action, is not protected by the First Amendment. Neither are libel or slander.

O’Keefe was arrested for entering the federal offices of then Senator Mary Landrieu under a false name. He had hoped to push a narrative of Landrieu ignoring her constituents — again, with a fake identity. This seems like it may question his speech’s legitimacy; one could even say he intended to publish libelous content about the senator, as it was unfounded with his false identity. O’Keefe and his organization, Project Veritas, have not been wary of the worst glimpses of the spotlight. Most recently, they paid a woman to offer The Washington Post an entirely fake story about sexual assault by Roy Moore. The Post, through its strict adherence to the highest standards of journalistic integrity, didn’t fall for the bait.

It is disgusting that O’Keefe and his group could create a falsified narrative of otherwise very real accusations against a prominent figure in American politics. His accusations demean all women and the sexual abuse experiences some have faced. He perpetuates a power structure that illegitimizes the terrible experiences of sexual assault victims. His attacks on the credibility of an organization committed to sound journalism are further incendiary. Ironically, it seems that O’Keefe may be the one going after the free, legitimate speech of others by haranguing the Post’s sound, factual journalism with unfounded claims of liberal media bias.

Here at Middlebury, where O’Keefe challenges us, there is little doubt that we are soundly committed to every person’s First Amendment rights. Higher education fosters a culture of choice: a person can choose to take courses of his or her interests, choose to open his or her mind, and choose to speak his or her beliefs. Professor Erik Bleich gave a presentation on the line between free speech and hate speech. One group of faculty actively admitted their commitment to free speech. The Faculty for an Inclusive Community group seeks to qualify the speakers brought to campus by stopping the imposition of debasing ideas. This group has shown that Middlebury, as a private institution, has every right to deny groups and dangerous individuals a platform on campus. This power is to be used sparingly, only with the most inciteful of figures, as it should be. These individuals and groups leave no doubt that freedom of speech is an unalienable tenet of each student’s experience at Middlebury College.

Similarly, we students are indeed exercising our right to speak freely. We have had and will have every right to protest the promulgation of ideas we deem pernicious. When speakers come who challenge our very humanity — our being — we have the right to resist their tacitly wrong ideas. We should never engage in violence; nobody should. Nonetheless, we can commit to preventing dangerous and harmful ideas from entering our precious academic space through our right to freedom of speech. We know this is our right, as we are well-versed in free speech. It seems as though O’Keefe is lost in his hunt for an attack on free speech at Middlebury.

At a time when the Middlebury community is engaging in a very serious dialogue, O’Keefe’s entrance is demeaning to the conversations being had on campus. O’Keefe and his ideas promote the narrative that Middlebury has an identity crisis that it can’t reconcile. On the contrary, we are facing our communal identity and who we want to be on the daily. We are engaging in the difficult conversations that determine the culture of our community. We are actively speaking together and against one another. We have offered our peers this platform; it is just a matter of us listening in full to our community that is so bothersome.

To hearken back to the town hall held in Mead Chapel not long ago, there are serious, raw feelings on this campus. These are not about a freedom to speak one’s mind; they’re about the antithesis, the need for empathy on an apathetic campus. These conversations are built around people speaking their beliefs in tune with their cherished right to speak freely. We already have free speech. We are now trying to get the rest of this school to listen to us. There are no laws to make people listen. Rather, this change has to be internal and community-driven.

I only hope that the Middlebury community is willing to engage in listening to our own, rather than outsiders trying to manipulate our dearest feelings. O’Keefe makes a mockery of the students who fought Charles Murray’s presence and are still fighting omnipresent slaps to their dignity on campus, through institutional racism and serious, connected incidences of racism. He makes a mockery of the conservative students he claims to be the savior to, as well, by claiming their very real, vocalized beliefs on campus to be lesser than their liberal peers’.

Students have fled from the perception of being connected with O’Keefe. He and his cronies are adamantly trying to drum up illegitimate praise for his efforts. In a time of invigorating debate on campus, claims of free speech being exacerbated are simply untrue. I’ve heard enough of the tired argument about a lack of free speech on campus, and we’ve definitely heard enough of James O’Keefe — before his arrival in town. It is crystal-clear that there is no desire for a vile outsider to come with a false narrative and puncture our integrity.

You are not welcome here, Mr. O’Keefe. I will not stand for such a divisive person as you to enter the College’s academic sphere. If you find your own free speech to be under attack, it is because what you stand for is incendiary and malicious. You should know that I will not remain idle and watch you attempt to break apart this community for your warped propaganda. I would much rather listen to my peers than you, who seek to vilify us. The discussions we are having on campus, about race and identity, about ideas and credibility, are happening because students and faculty alike are coming forward and using their free voices. Don’t get this twisted.

I say this because I am not out of line of my First Amendment rights. I say this after reading fact upon fact about you, and then making a founded argument based on these facts. I say this in The Campus because I am offered a platform by a private group to publish my opinions. I say this proudly because I stand by my own commitment to allowing others to speak, so long as they are not committing libel or slander or inciting hateful acts. I say this proudly because I can protest such harmful individuals and their speech if I so choose. I say this proudly because I can speak freely at Middlebury College.

Zeke Hodkin is a student the class of 2021.

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