On Monday, Oct. 16, members of the Middlebury College community gathered in Wilson Hall for an event entitled, “From Middlebury to the ACLU: Two Alums Discuss Civil Rights, Free Speech, and the Atmosphere on College Campuses.” The event mainly consisted of a dialogue between Dennis Parker ’77, who currently directs the Racial Justice Program at the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU), and Lee Rowland ’02, who works as a Senior Staff Attorney for the ACLU’s Speech, Privacy, and Technology Project.
President of the College Laurie L. Patton, who gave opening remarks, noted, “These are challenging issues, and particularly timely ones.”
“They are not issues where it’s easy to find consensus,” she said. “We’re fortunate to have such two talented, knowledgeable, and skilled professionals with us tonight to explore these topics with sensitivity and rigor, but not with total agreement.”
Each speaker began with an overview of how their career paths led them to their present jobs. Parker, whose first job after law school was in criminal defense, shared that he immediately perceived “the huge gap between what you are learning now in constitutional law… and the reality of what happens in the courtroom.”
“In fact, the law is not objective,” Parker said. “I walked into a courtroom where virtually everyone on one side of the bar was white, and everyone on the other was African-American or Latino.”
Institutional bias, Parker explained, was evident. “You started to learn very quickly that you could anticipate questions about bail, questions about sentence offers, questions about what someone would look like when they were charged with disorderly conduct. You started to realize that, ‘Huh, they’re not charging him with anything else. I bet he’s black, and I bet he will have been beaten,” he said. “You learn to anticipate that the white clients are more likely to be released on their own recognizance, while the black and Latino clients charged with this same offense were more likely to have high bails set.”
Rowland spoke next, describing her upbringing as a “poor kid” with teenage parents who were “all over the map politically.” Nonetheless, she explained, “There was kind of a shared ideal that if the government reduced our liberty, if it took away choice in some way, it had to have a good reason for it.”
“I hadn’t thought about civil liberties as a mode of being until my junior year here, when 9/11 happened,” Rowland said, explaining that her wariness of the War on Terror and opposition to the Iraq War brought her much criticism on campus.
She continued, “I thought that I’d found a bubble here— a lot of well-meaning, generally progressive folks who were not racist, who were not sexist, who were level-headed, decent human beings. And even here, even at Middlebury, I realized that a civil libertarian perspective was unbelievably rare.”
Next, Rowland cited as an influence her status as the child of poor parents who “decided they were getting divorced when I was eleven and couldn’t afford it till I was sixteen.”
She said, “I had a very bizarre conception of the law, which was, it was a set of fundamental rules that govern our lives and how we interact, but they’re written as an obscure code by lawyers, for lawyers, so you have to pay lawyers to decipher them for you.” Pursuing law was the most obvious way to “dismantle what I see as an unjustly constructed society.”
Yet even within progressive institutions like the ACLU, Rowland explained that opinions on legal matters often prove to be divided. Rowland cited a particular case in which she defended the First Amendment right of the Washington Redskins to maintain what she herself considers an offensive team name.
Many in her organization, she said, disputed the notion that “we’re putting our resources towards defending a football team that has a billion dollars and the best lawyers in the country. […] It shows that you can have a group of extremely opinionated, really smart people, and these controversies don’t go away. Even for us, there are times where we see liberty and equality, via the lens of free speech and racial justice, in a fundamental tension.”
The conversation then moved to the issues of free speech and political correctness on college campuses, as Parker shared his perspective as one of the College’s few black students in the 1970s. “People will sometimes say, ‘Things are now becoming politically correct, and things that used to be acceptable are not acceptable now. This is horrible, it’s destroying education, it’s ending speech.’”
“What I hear,” he continued, “is what existed before was horrible, it just wasn’t horrible for you. For you, fighting political correctness means having your right to go in blackface to a Halloween party. For me, it means the ability to go to a school and feel comfortable and feel I can participate.”
Rowland connected Parker’s thoughts to her work on the First Amendment, imagining a scenario in which she, as a white woman, is criticized by a fellow student for wearing blackface.
In this scenario, Rowland said, “I have experienced no loss of my free speech rights. No structure of power has told me I can’t wear blackface. Instead, what has happened is another private person, someone who deserves a voice and a megaphone and a platform every bit as much as I do, has told me, ‘I don’t appreciate that. I don’t like that idea. Here’s why I disagree.’ That’s what the First Amendment envisions.”
Conversely, Rowland noted, she would oppose an effort by the College to expel a student for a similarly offensive gesture. “If you kick that kid out, aren’t you basically saying, ‘We don’t educate racists?’ I am very skeptical that that’s the endpoint any of us want to get to.”
Parker concurred, noting his disdain for people who “think that the act of being offensive makes you a champion of the First Amendment.”
“The First Amendment is the hero there,” Parker said. “You’re an asshole. It permits you to be an asshole, and that’s one of the reasons why it’s so great.”
After further discussion of anonymous speech and the constitutional right to protest, Parker and Rowland answered student questions.
One question, from Harrison Cramer ’16.5, pertained to the Campus’s publication of an op-ed earlier in 2016 that many students found offensive. Specifically, Cramer asked “whether it is the role of the newspaper to reflect the campus accurately and fully, including unpopular opinions,” or alternatively, if the newspaper should reject such thoughts in favor of fostering a socially conscious community.
Rowland responded first, explaining that she opposes any censoring of opposing views because “even a well-meaning constriction of power can easily flip on you.” While a campus newspaper is hardly an all-powerful force, she conceded, “we are still talking about investing trust in a power structure that is not democratically accountable.”
“I actually agree,” Parker added to laughter, noting that “seemingly objective laws and procedures and roles do not always equally protect people.”
Still, he emphasized, “it should be framed in a way that’s responsible and that encourages true access to people who have differing opinions.”
Following closing remarks by President Patton, both Rowland and Parker told the Campus that they were pleased with students’ engagement at the event.
“This gave me hope, said Rowland. “It’s representative of a campus that’s not afraid to engage what has been, even recently, a very sore spot. I hope this is the beginning in a series of these conversations, rather than a one-off.”
Parker elaborated on the challenges facing the College. “It’s incumbent on the college to find a way to permit people to disagree in a civil way, he said, “but to create a campus environment that everyone feels they’re a part of, that they’re welcome, and that they have something to contribute.”
Don-Marc Arnold ’19 said of the talk, ““I thought it was really thought-provoking in that they touched on the idea of white anxiety where, under the white supremacist discourse, groups of white Americans feel that their civil liberties are being infringed to appease a group of people [read: black people] who are accruing benefits for a wrong ‘righted’ years ago. A good example of that was when Lee spoke about the color day at the university where the student pushed back for for wearing a ‘white power’ shirt.”