Lessons Learned on Controversial Speakers

As a learning institution, we believe Middlebury College should always look toward the educational possibilities of events and conversations. Two years after the fracturing of our campus around Charles Murray’s visit, what can we say we have learned about hosting divisive and controversial speakers at Middlebury whose statements and actions threaten or demean underrepresented groups, and how did those lessons manifest themselves in this past week’s canceled speech by Ryszard Legutko?

The first lesson is that the paramount concern over all others is the physical safety of our community, particularly the students who make Middlebury’s campus their home by attending the college. The administrators who oversee public safety decided that given the way the events had been planned, they could not guarantee safety on April 17 and thus canceled the lecture at the last minute. The administration has confirmed that there was no specific threat, but rather, per lessons learned over the past two years, the number of attendees at both the speech and protest required more security staffing than available on short notice to be able to ensure everyone’s safety. There should be a thorough review as to why safety could not be guaranteed and how to handle events like these better in the future.

The student protesters demonstrated that they are exceptional learners around these issues. They explicitly framed their protest as a non-disruptive event that would affirm their own identities, but not interfere with Legutko’s speech in any way. They were transparent in their planning, and openly communicated with the administration. They followed every aspect of our protest policies to exercise their rights to speech and protest. The fact that student protesters have been wrongly blamed by many in the media, by prominent figures in the so-called “campus free speech” movement, and by members of our own community, is a travesty. We call upon those outside figures and especially Middlebury colleagues to retract that blame and apologize for their mischaracterizations.

What did those faculty colleagues who invited Legutko learn from the past two years? It would seem that they learned much about how to create a partisan firestorm, how to mischaracterize and defame students, and how to avoid being held accountable for their actions. Specifically, we ask for a public accounting as to how the organizers of the Hamilton Forum met or failed in their responsibility to ensure public safety per the post-2017 policies, for their willingness to withhold or misrepresent relevant information about speakers to colleagues, and for their unwillingness to be transparent and communicative about their own actions.

We support open academic inquiry and free speech, including the student protesters’ plan to exercise their free speech in a non-disruptive way. In fact, as was amply demonstrated by the uneventful talks throughout the academic year, including by other conservative speakers sponsored by the Hamilton Forum, there is ample space on campus to hear diverse viewpoints. We ask that those who wish to bring speakers carefully consider the effect of such speakers and the format in which they are presented, on the campus climate and our student, faculty, and staff colleagues. While we all should learn to engage productively with hurtful rhetoric, we question whether this can be accomplished by giving divisive speakers an unchallenged platform without proper contextualization or framing. The maintenance of “a culture of reasoned, civil discussion and debate across political and intellectual differences” requires all members of a community to act in good faith; we call upon our colleagues who have failed to do so to demonstrate that they too are open to learning lessons about honesty and humility.

*Editor’s Note: The members of the Middlebury Faculty Caucus for an Inclusive Community can be found here. Learn more about the group here.


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7 Responses to “Lessons Learned on Controversial Speakers”

  1. S on April 19th, 2019 6:01 pm

    “Specifically, we ask for a public accounting as to how the organizers of the Hamilton Forum met or failed in their responsibility to ensure public safety per the post-2017 policies…”

    Organizations that invite speakers are NOT responsible for “ensuring public security.” I do not know how administration and other faculty are portraying this as the responsibility of the Alexander Hamilton Forum. Any institution committed to free inquiry would recognize that placing the burden of security (which is a cost) on student organizations would inevitably dissuade them from inviting controversial speakers. I disagree with Legutko’s ideas wholeheartedly, but, for any event, the powers that be at Middlebury, NOT individual orgs like the Alexander Hamilton Forum, are responsible for ensuring the safety of protester, the attendee, speakers, etc. The ADMINISTRATION FAILED and is now painting it as a failure of the Forum. Take responsibility and stop deflecting it.

  2. T on April 19th, 2019 9:49 pm

    Honest questions in regard to the above comment, I’m not looking for a shouting match, just clarification.

    Is the Alexander Hamilton Forum a student organization? Genuine question, I don’t see any students among its directors.

    Do post-2017 public safety guidelines place any responsibilities on faculty when it comes to hosting events on campus? Again, genuine question, I suspect they might but wouldn’t mind hearing specifics.

    No question the administration failed, I think everyone bar the administration agrees on that, but the rest of the statement you quote here asks specifically whether the Alexander Hamilton Forum also failed, or whether it was being transparent when it represented Legutko’s talk to the public the way that it did. Had publicity materials given some information about Legutko’s role in Poland’s Law & Justice Party and the role that party has played in democratic “deconsolidation” in that country in recent years–which is really not an unusual concern to register these days, on most points of the political spectrum save for the far-right–might that have alerted people sooner that the talk would be controversial, and given the college more time to take adequate measures to ensure security for both the lecture and for protestors?

  3. Jason Mittell on April 20th, 2019 7:21 am

    By “their responsibility,” we do not mean paying for security. We mean the specific obligations that fall upon event organizers to work with the administration – primarily proactive and honest communication, and following protocols for organizing events. The administration has said that student protestors met those obligations. We are asking for the same accounting of the AHF, which is not a student organization.

  4. S on April 21st, 2019 12:21 pm

    @Professor Mittell and @T,

    AHF includes ~20 students. While I agree it is not a “student organization,” student involvement is critical to its functioning.

    Either way, whether we agree to consider AHF a student organization or not, my point still stands. Faculty or students should not be dissuaded from inviting potentially controversial speakers because other members of our community or outsiders might cause a security issue. Even if the the costs of security are not monetary, added responsibilities like close and constant communication with the administration inevitably and necessarily discourage organizations, be them faculty or student, from hosting people whose ideas offend some groups.

    If an organization (faculty or student) invited a speaker who believed in Tibetan sovereignty and some students objected, should we require that that organization take on the burden of working with the administration to ensure public safety? Any time that we or our protocols create additional responsibilities, we are inevitably dissuading organizations from hosting certain perspectives that might cause controversy.

    This, in principle, is why I do not believe Middlebury should obligate any organization on this campus “to ensure public safety.” No protocol should be allowed to make topics more difficult to debate or to challenge. The administration is solely responsibility for creating a community that has no barriers to thought and discourse.

  5. Jason Mittell on April 21st, 2019 1:32 pm

    @S – when any organization, department, or individual asks to use college resources (facilities, security, media services, etc.) to host a speaker, they most certainly have an obligation to work with the administration. Most of the time, this is very straightforward: you indicate that there’s a security concern on your event scheduling form, and then the relevant staff members reach out to ask questions. If I were bringing a speaker about Tibetan sovereignty, then I would certainly make sure the administration knew that there could be concerns, and would cooperate with them on addressing those concerns. I would also be sure to communicate that info to colleagues if I were asking them to co-sponsor the event. It is a small but essential burden to be clear, honest, and thorough in communication.

    All we are asking is that the AHF be held accountable if they did not answer questions honestly, or withheld relevant info from their colleagues. Like the editorial says, none of this works if people do not act in good faith.

  6. S on April 22nd, 2019 10:23 am

    @Professor Mittell

    I agree that the AHF made major missteps along the way in this saga, particularly hosting Legutko in a classroom after the supposed “safety risk.”

    However, I think comphrensive protocols will inevitably lead to organizations inviting fewer and fewer controversial speakers. Moreover, we have yet to define what constitutes sufficient cooperation with the administration. As this burden becomes greater, which I believe it will if we make it the responsibility of the inviting organizations, we will see a drop in the number of speakers whose ideas go against prevailing opinion on this campus.

    Middlebury College is running the intellectual risk of losing viewpoint diversity, which is why I believe the administration should take the sole responsibility of ensuring public safety. With the resources available to administrators, they are entirely capable of performing this function.

  7. Killer Marmot on April 24th, 2019 5:50 am

    The authors are not against free speech, you understand. They just want those who invite the wrong sort of speaker onto campus to be held responsible.

    A profoundly dishonest article.

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Lessons Learned on Controversial Speakers