College Braces for Right-Wing Speaker Accused of Homophobia

A+poster+for+the+Ryszard+Legutko+lecture%2C+covered+by+a+flier+advertising+his+views+on+gay+rights%2C+in+Davis+Family+Library.
Back to Article
Back to Article

College Braces for Right-Wing Speaker Accused of Homophobia

A poster for the Ryszard Legutko lecture, covered by a flier advertising his views on gay rights, in Davis Family Library.

A poster for the Ryszard Legutko lecture, covered by a flier advertising his views on gay rights, in Davis Family Library.

WILL DIGRAVIO/THE MIDDLEBURY CAMPUS

A poster for the Ryszard Legutko lecture, covered by a flier advertising his views on gay rights, in Davis Family Library.

WILL DIGRAVIO/THE MIDDLEBURY CAMPUS

WILL DIGRAVIO/THE MIDDLEBURY CAMPUS

A poster for the Ryszard Legutko lecture, covered by a flier advertising his views on gay rights, in Davis Family Library.

By RILEY BOARD

UPDATE — Wednesday, April 17: The college has canceled Legutko’s lecture, citing security risks. Professor Keegan Callanan said he has already invited Legutko to speak again on campus next year. Click here for full coverage.

——

Tuesday, April 16

An upcoming lecture by a far-right scholar and member of the European Parliament has renewed the college’s ongoing debate over the difference between free speech and hate speech, and whether those accused of the latter should be allowed to speak on campus.

Ryszard Legutko, a scholar and far right member of the European Parliament from Poland, has made incendiary remarks about LGBTQ activists, tolerance and multiculturalism, and is a critic of liberal democracy. Legutko was invited to speak by the Alexander Hamilton Forum, a series founded last year that “aims to foster thoughtful engagement with the ideas that have informed the creation and development of the American polity.” The talk, which is co-sponsored by the Political Science Department and the Rohatyn Center for Global Affairs, will be held tomorrow, Wednesday, April 17 at 4:30 p.m. in Kirk Alumni Center.

“I don’t understand why anyone should want to be proud of being a homosexual,” Legutko said in 2011. “Be proud of what you do, not of being a homosexual.”

Student activists have planned a performance protest in response. The protest will take place outside of the lecture and is, in part, intended to be a celebration of queer identity. Protesters plan to hold signs, play music, and throw a dance party. They will also hand out pamphlets informing attendees of Legutko’s views. Protest organizers will be shuttling protest participants to the center from Adirondack Circle, starting at 3:45 p.m.

COURTESY PHOTO
An advertisement for the Legutko protest was scrawled onto a chalkboard in Bicentennial Hall.

“It is absolutely, unequivocally not the intent of this protest and those participating in this protest to prevent Legutko from speaking. Disruptive behavior of this nature will not be tolerated,” wrote Taite Shomo ’20.5, an organizer of the protest, in the official Facebook event.

After the Facebook event for the protest went live, the director of the Hamilton Forum, Assistant Political Science Professor Keegan Callanan, wrote an open letter in defense of the lecture.

“At Middlebury, some would prefer that we not have the chance to hear and to question Prof. Legutko and other heterodox scholars. The Hamilton Forum takes a different view,” Callanan wrote. “In short, the Hamilton Forum has no ideological litmus tests.”

Responding indirectly to Legutko’s comments on gay rights, Callanan claimed in his letter that some of Legutko’s comments had been altered or taken out of context, and compared Legutko’s views to the “position on same-sex marriage once held by President Obama, President Clinton, and Secretary Clinton.”

When a Campus reporter reached out for an interview, Callanan replied only with a copy of the letter. Callanan did not respond to additional questions asking how speakers for the Hamilton Forum are selected and whether the forum’s organizers were aware of Legutko’s history of controversial views prior to inviting him to campus. He also did not answer inquiries about the Hamilton Forum’s source of funding, which has not been made public.

The subject of Legutko’s lecture is not his views on gay rights. His talk is entitled “The Demon in Democracy: Totalitarian Temptations in Free Societies,” and will examine the way “that western democracy has over time crept towards the same goals as communism, albeit without Soviet-style brutality.”

LEARNING ABOUT LEGUTKO

Russian Professor Kevin Moss, who studies gender in Eastern Europe, first encountered Legutko’s position on tolerance and the LGBT community last week when he saw that Legutko had made incendiary comments about homosexuality on a Polish news channel.

“Through my colleagues in Poland I became aware of what else he had said, and what his views were, and it turned out that the ‘demon’ in democracy that he is referring to is tolerance,” Moss told The Campus.

Legutko’s views are shared throughout his right-wing, populist Law and Justice Party, which holds the most seats in Poland’s legislature. The party was responsible for a now-reversed law that instituted jail time for suggesting that Poland was complicit in the Holocaust, and recently came under fire from the European Union (EU) for attempting to amend Poland’s courts in ways that threatened the state’s separation of powers. Legutko and his party also oppose expanding rights for gay Poles.

After discovering Legutko’s controversial views, Moss shared his findings with members of the Gender, Sexuality and Feminist Studies Department, inclusivity groups and Political Science professors.

The information spread and several student initiatives opposing Legutko’s visit materialized over the last few days, the most prominent among them a queer-focused protest of the lecture.

Word about the protest has spread by way of a Facebook event page, entitled “Ryszard Legutko is a f*cking homophobe (and racist and sexist).” The page’s go-link, go/homophobe, has been advertised on chalkboards and posters across campus. Some have written the go-link on the official lecture posters.

THE PROTEST

As someone who cares about making this campus a better, more thoughtful place, I think it would be irresponsible not to protest against such a person’s presence,” Shomo said. “I intend on exercising my own right to free speech and protest by refusing to allow Legutko to speak here without informing the community of his harmful ideas.”

VAN BARTH/THE MIDDLEBURY CAMPUS
Students work on signs to be used at the protest of Ryszard Legutko on Monday, April 15.

Protesters are mindful of the discipline that student protesters faced following the Charles Murray protest. “We decided that it would be better for the safety of students who want to be involved in this protest if we did not try to stop Legutko from speaking,” Shomo said.

Outside of the event, we will be celebrating queer identity — something that we feel this institution is implicitly undermining by giving Legutko a platform to speak,” said Grace Vedock ’20, another protest organizer. “Students are encouraged to come to the lecture in rainbow colors and carrying pride flags.”

THE COMMUNITY RESPONDS

In the lead up to the protests, activists also drafted an open letter urging the Political Science Department and Rohatyn Center to rescind their sponsorship of the lecture. The letter quotes Legutko’s past statements, and has been signed by hundreds of students, dozens of student organizations, and several faculty members.

Erik Bleich, chair of the Political Science Department, responded to the open letter with a letter of his own.

I will also support your right to protest this speaker or any speaker and to state your views as fully as possible,” he wrote. “My fundamental goal is to uphold the key values of academic freedom and inclusivity, even during moments when these core values are not fully or easily compatible.”

Tamar Mayer, director of the Rohatyn Center, explained her decision to sponsor the lecture. “We get hundreds of requests a year and we base our decision on the limited information provided by the organizer,” she explained. “Nothing whatsoever that could have raised a flag.”

All seven members of the Rohatyn student advisory board denounced the center’s endorsement in a letter to The Campus.

“While we were neither informed of nor involved in the decision to sponsor the event, we are acting in our fullest capacity to advise the Rohatyn Center leadership, imploring them to withdraw support and co-sponsorship,” the members wrote. “We stand in solidarity with the rest of the student leadership listed on the open letter to the RCGA and Political Science Department.”

The Hamilton Forum also has a student fellows program. The Campus reached out to Linda Booska, the Political Science Department coordinator and listed contact for the Hamilton Forum, and inquired about the names of the fellows, which are not listed on the website. She did not respond. The Campus asked both Booska and Callanan whether students were involved in the selection of speakers. They did not respond. In the course of reporting, The Campus also learned that one of the forum’s main student coordinators advised other students involved in the forum not to speak with Campus reporters in order to keep “out of any potential public battle,” though they said the decision to do so was ultimately theirs.

The forum also has a three-member steering committee: Political Science professors Murray Dry and Allison Stanger and former Vermont Governor Jim Douglas ’72.

PANEL DISCUSSION

BENJY RENTON/THE MIDDLEBURY CAMPUS
Students watch the Political Science departmental panel at Dana Auditorium Tuesday afternoon, April 16.

On Tuesday afternoon, the Rohatyn Center and Political Science Department hosted a panel discussion in Dana Auditorium as a prelude to tomorrow’s lecture.

“The department is taking a ‘more speech’ approach by co-sponsoring an additional panel discussion,” Bleich wrote in an email announcing the panel. “The goal is to provide context for the Legutko talk and to address some of the key concerns raised about his positions.”

The panel brought Political Science professors Gary Winslett, Katherine Aha and Russian Professor Kevin Moss together to discuss their respective expertise on liberal democracy, the rise of the Law and Justice Party in Poland and the anti-gender movement in Eastern Europe. Bleich moderated the event.

In the question and answer period after the panel, students grilled Bleich about the Political Science Department’s decision to sponsor the lecture. Students also raised questions about extra credit being offered for attending the lecture, criticized Bleich’s decision to approve Callanan’s request to sponsor the lecture, and drew connections to the protests associated with Charles Murray’s lecture over two years ago.

The tradition has been that sponsorship requests submitted by a member of the department are automatically approved. Bleich responded that he was open to discussing the way that speakers are approved by the department, but said he would be hesitant to implement a system in which faculty members vet their colleagues’ requests.  

Despite divisions, students and faculty appear united in their common goal of not stopping the lecture. Moss, in particular, is looking forward to asking Legutko tough questions.

“If gay people are controlling the world and destroying families and destroying religion as well, please give me examples,” Moss said he will ask Legutko. “How many people have died in this struggle? Because gay people have died; there are suicides among gay people. How many Christians have committed suicide because of gay tyranny? Please tell me. I am waiting for your statistics.”

A Campus reporter will be on hand to cover tomorrow’s lecture.

Correction: A previous version of this article stated that Callanan had advised students in the Hamilton Forum not to respond to requests for comment from Campus reporters. This directive actually came from a student coordinator. We regret the error.

Hang on for a minute...we're trying to find some more stories you might like.