The Charles Murray Incident: Controversial Speakers and Free Speech at Colleges

On March 2, 2017, a talk by Charles Murray at the Middlebury College in Vermont was disrupted by loud chanting from protesters in the student audience. The protesters had come in force to voice their disagreement with Murray and, in particular, the arguments he propagates in his book titled The Bell Curve.

While some academics have defended and corroborated Murray’s book, others have widely criticized it for what many believe to be scientific racism.

The book is perhaps most infamous for correlating socioeconomic status with race and intelligence. Ultimately, Murray’s invitation onto Middlebury’s campus sparked a heated debate surrounding the idea of free speech in an academic setting.

The question of free speech has lingered in the minds of students and faculty alike at the college. Where does free speech end and where does injurious, inciteful hate speech begin? At what point is censorship an appropriate response? Is there a lack of tolerance for specific viewpoints on college campuses in the modern age?

The controversy at Middlebury is a microcosm of a larger battle taking place in the political minds across the United State; some argue that free speech is under attack on college campuses while others argue that speech cannot be condoned if it is hateful and harms inclusion.

Robert Post, a current professor at Yale Law School and a free speech expert, discussed free speech on college campuses at Middlebury College on April 11, 2018. His lecture follows a series of similarly themed talks at the school that represent an increasing desire for free speech dialogue. I found that Mr. Post’s lecture was especially insightful because of his approach to the free speech/inclusion discourse.

Post offers a refreshingly optimistic perspective on the debate because he states that the issue with the modern free speech dialogue is that freedom of speech and inclusion on college campuses are often interpreted as inherently contradictory and mutually exclusive societal goals. The Sterling law professor took issue with the discourse on one main front: freedom of speech does not have to directly oppose inclusion on college campuses.

In order to explain how the two abstractions aren’t necessarily mutually exclusive, Professor Post provided three rules governing the presence of free speech: the state cannot justifiably control the content of an individual’s speech; all ideas are equal; and, the state cannot compel an individual to speak.

I agreed with Professor Post’s arguments in this regard. However, his next assertion caught me off guard. Essentially, Post argued that students lack true freedom of speech on campus and that, surprisingly, universities inherently have to violate the rules of the First Amendment. Such an assertion was shocking at face-value. After all, how can any institution so nonchalantly disregard what is considered an essential, inalienable right?

Post’s argument, however, is not unheard of. He quoted the 1915 Declaration of Principles on Academic Freedom and Academic Tenure to justify his claims: “Academic freedom upholds not the absolute freedom of utterance of the individual scholar, but the absolute freedom of thought, of inquiry, of discussion and of teaching, of the academic profession.”

The professor’s argument relies on the major assertion that universities exist as institutions designed to advance knowledge and that speech regulation is undeniably necessary for such an objective.

What does he mean? Professor Post provided examples of how all three governing principles of free speech had to be restricted by universities. For example, in classrooms, teachers have to choose specific types of curriculum to teach while disregarding others, judge the quality of student ideas, and compel students to engage in dialogue.

According to the argument, the principles of free speech are directly infringed upon on college campuses because a university’s objectives differ from the purpose of the guarantees of free speech. Along those same lines, free speech can’t conflict with inclusion on college campuses because students and teachers don’t have free speech protections. Thus, the issue then becomes inclusion versus a university’s educational commitment.

I find Post’s logic to be incredibly refreshing in the modern free speech debate. He has essentially reframed the dialogue for us so that we can have a productive discussion on commensurate values. Rather than focusing on free speech versus inclusion on college campuses, we should actively discuss the educational merits of the speech versus the consequences it has on inclusion.

So how does the logic help us think about Charles Murray? The issue becomes even more complex because Murray was a student-invited speaker. Is his presentation a reflection of student values and, therefore, student speech?

Post has said that, in the pursuit of higher education, students must learn to engage with potentially offensive ideas. But, again, when do offensive ideas become hateful, injurious speech? Is it ever okay to engage in some sort of censorship in which this hate speech is prohibited? To answer such questions, Professor Post has given us a clear framework with which to analyze the speaker and his or her ideas.

The role of the university remains clear, regardless of who is invited to campus. Universities are institutions designed to advance knowledge, and the question becomes whether these institutions do or do not fulfill their missions by inviting the speakers. Post has given some theories as to why universities might support student-invited speakers: because students should feel free to pursue academic viewpoints beyond those of the college and because the university wishes to create a more diverse campus.

The Charles Murray incident is an interesting case because he wasn’t presenting his viewpoint disrespectfully or offensively, but his argument itself was controversial.

However, as Professor Post has shown us, students must learn to engage with controversial and offensive ideas. It seems to have been entirely within the right of the Middlebury students to protest the speech—especially for those students whose own identities were seemingly challenged by Murray’s perspective. It also seems entirely within the right of Murray’s proponents to have invited him if they felt that he could provide some sort of academic benefit.

But if his argument forces a certain party or population to feel excluded, should Murray not have been invited?

In my opinion, and according to Professor Post’s logic, Murray had every right to be invited. His collegiate proponents invited him because they felt he had some academic benefit to offer to the student body. And perhaps some of the students who invited him agreed with some of his points but disagreed with others. By this same logic, Murray’s ideas were not student speech. It was his own perspective, and he was merely invited to offer it at the discretion of those at the school. Only if he were to present his points injuriously should he have been excluded.

The important distinction, in my opinion, is this: although Murray’s opinions are controversial, he was not presenting them injuriously; thus, the benefit of having him on campus was the ability to challenge his ideas and work to change his viewpoint.

We must keep in mind that, according to the arguments given to us by Professor Post, all ideas are equal. Although Murray’s perspective was undoubtedly offensive, it’s important that students recognize his argument and are given the chance to argue against it productively. Speech is free unless a speaker makes it injurious—and up until that point, a university’s discretion on inviting said speaker must rely on the academically beneficial merits of his or her ideas.

In no way am I justifying Murray’s viewpoints and alleged scientific racismHowever, I am proposing that he is free to present his arguments unless he does so injuriously.

Regardless of the speaker, it is important to remember that inclusion plays an essential role in the question. It is clearly detrimental to a university’s mission to invite speakers who would make students feel personally attacked or injured; neither student nor teacher should engage in personal abuse. That said, how could such invitation or action fulfill the institution’s mission?

The speech line is a hard line to toe. Inclusion is undoubtedly of utmost importance, and yet so is the university’s commitment to knowledge and education. It is clearly a case-by-case investigation, and it is up to the institution each time to determine the beneficial and educational merits of speakers as well as their effect on inclusion on campus.

The same logic applies then to the idea of censorship on campus. Ultimately, the free speech issue is reliant on the framework Professor Post gives us. Censorship should be left up to each individual institution to determine whether or not a speech advances its educational mission or threatens the inclusivity of its student body. The continuing debate of censorship, free speech, and hate speech is an issue that is, without a doubt, difficult to resolve, but the framework Professor Post provides is a strong first step in the right direction.

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I am a freshman at Middlebury College, where I aspire to major in International Studies and Arabic. In the future, I hope to pursue a career in journalism. I have travelled across the world, working with elephants in Burma and singing with elementary choral groups in Argentina. Because of my travels, I hope to someday represent and work with refugees domestically, as well as in Europe and the Middle East. In my spare time, I enjoy playing chess and singing.

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The Charles Murray Incident: Controversial Speakers and Free Speech at Colleges

On March 2, 2017, a talk by Charles Murray at the Middlebury College in Vermont was disrupted by loud chanting from protesters in the student audience. The protesters had come in force to voice their disagreement with Murray and, in particular, the arguments he propagates in his book titled The Bell Curve.

While some academics have defended and corroborated Murray’s book, others have widely criticized it for what many believe to be scientific racism.

The book is perhaps most infamous for correlating socioeconomic status with race and intelligence. Ultimately, Murray’s invitation onto Middlebury’s campus sparked a heated debate surrounding the idea of free speech in an academic setting.

The question of free speech has lingered in the minds of students and faculty alike at the college. Where does free speech end and where does injurious, inciteful hate speech begin? At what point is censorship an appropriate response? Is there a lack of tolerance for specific viewpoints on college campuses in the modern age?

The controversy at Middlebury is a microcosm of a larger battle taking place in the political minds across the United State; some argue that free speech is under attack on college campuses while others argue that speech cannot be condoned if it is hateful and harms inclusion.

Robert Post, a current professor at Yale Law School and a free speech expert, discussed free speech on college campuses at Middlebury College on April 11, 2018. His lecture follows a series of similarly themed talks at the school that represent an increasing desire for free speech dialogue. I found that Mr. Post’s lecture was especially insightful because of his approach to the free speech/inclusion discourse.

Post offers a refreshingly optimistic perspective on the debate because he states that the issue with the modern free speech dialogue is that freedom of speech and inclusion on college campuses are often interpreted as inherently contradictory and mutually exclusive societal goals. The Sterling law professor took issue with the discourse on one main front: freedom of speech does not have to directly oppose inclusion on college campuses.

In order to explain how the two abstractions aren’t necessarily mutually exclusive, Professor Post provided three rules governing the presence of free speech: the state cannot justifiably control the content of an individual’s speech; all ideas are equal; and, the state cannot compel an individual to speak.

I agreed with Professor Post’s arguments in this regard. However, his next assertion caught me off guard. Essentially, Post argued that students lack true freedom of speech on campus and that, surprisingly, universities inherently have to violate the rules of the First Amendment. Such an assertion was shocking at face-value. After all, how can any institution so nonchalantly disregard what is considered an essential, inalienable right?

Post’s argument, however, is not unheard of. He quoted the 1915 Declaration of Principles on Academic Freedom and Academic Tenure to justify his claims: “Academic freedom upholds not the absolute freedom of utterance of the individual scholar, but the absolute freedom of thought, of inquiry, of discussion and of teaching, of the academic profession.”

The professor’s argument relies on the major assertion that universities exist as institutions designed to advance knowledge and that speech regulation is undeniably necessary for such an objective.

What does he mean? Professor Post provided examples of how all three governing principles of free speech had to be restricted by universities. For example, in classrooms, teachers have to choose specific types of curriculum to teach while disregarding others, judge the quality of student ideas, and compel students to engage in dialogue.

According to the argument, the principles of free speech are directly infringed upon on college campuses because a university’s objectives differ from the purpose of the guarantees of free speech. Along those same lines, free speech can’t conflict with inclusion on college campuses because students and teachers don’t have free speech protections. Thus, the issue then becomes inclusion versus a university’s educational commitment.

I find Post’s logic to be incredibly refreshing in the modern free speech debate. He has essentially reframed the dialogue for us so that we can have a productive discussion on commensurate values. Rather than focusing on free speech versus inclusion on college campuses, we should actively discuss the educational merits of the speech versus the consequences it has on inclusion.

So how does the logic help us think about Charles Murray? The issue becomes even more complex because Murray was a student-invited speaker. Is his presentation a reflection of student values and, therefore, student speech?

Post has said that, in the pursuit of higher education, students must learn to engage with potentially offensive ideas. But, again, when do offensive ideas become hateful, injurious speech? Is it ever okay to engage in some sort of censorship in which this hate speech is prohibited? To answer such questions, Professor Post has given us a clear framework with which to analyze the speaker and his or her ideas.

The role of the university remains clear, regardless of who is invited to campus. Universities are institutions designed to advance knowledge, and the question becomes whether these institutions do or do not fulfill their missions by inviting the speakers. Post has given some theories as to why universities might support student-invited speakers: because students should feel free to pursue academic viewpoints beyond those of the college and because the university wishes to create a more diverse campus.

The Charles Murray incident is an interesting case because he wasn’t presenting his viewpoint disrespectfully or offensively, but his argument itself was controversial.

However, as Professor Post has shown us, students must learn to engage with controversial and offensive ideas. It seems to have been entirely within the right of the Middlebury students to protest the speech—especially for those students whose own identities were seemingly challenged by Murray’s perspective. It also seems entirely within the right of Murray’s proponents to have invited him if they felt that he could provide some sort of academic benefit.

But if his argument forces a certain party or population to feel excluded, should Murray not have been invited?

In my opinion, and according to Professor Post’s logic, Murray had every right to be invited. His collegiate proponents invited him because they felt he had some academic benefit to offer to the student body. And perhaps some of the students who invited him agreed with some of his points but disagreed with others. By this same logic, Murray’s ideas were not student speech. It was his own perspective, and he was merely invited to offer it at the discretion of those at the school. Only if he were to present his points injuriously should he have been excluded.

The important distinction, in my opinion, is this: although Murray’s opinions are controversial, he was not presenting them injuriously; thus, the benefit of having him on campus was the ability to challenge his ideas and work to change his viewpoint.

We must keep in mind that, according to the arguments given to us by Professor Post, all ideas are equal. Although Murray’s perspective was undoubtedly offensive, it’s important that students recognize his argument and are given the chance to argue against it productively. Speech is free unless a speaker makes it injurious—and up until that point, a university’s discretion on inviting said speaker must rely on the academically beneficial merits of his or her ideas.

In no way am I justifying Murray’s viewpoints and alleged scientific racismHowever, I am proposing that he is free to present his arguments unless he does so injuriously.

Regardless of the speaker, it is important to remember that inclusion plays an essential role in the question. It is clearly detrimental to a university’s mission to invite speakers who would make students feel personally attacked or injured; neither student nor teacher should engage in personal abuse. That said, how could such invitation or action fulfill the institution’s mission?

The speech line is a hard line to toe. Inclusion is undoubtedly of utmost importance, and yet so is the university’s commitment to knowledge and education. It is clearly a case-by-case investigation, and it is up to the institution each time to determine the beneficial and educational merits of speakers as well as their effect on inclusion on campus.

The same logic applies then to the idea of censorship on campus. Ultimately, the free speech issue is reliant on the framework Professor Post gives us. Censorship should be left up to each individual institution to determine whether or not a speech advances its educational mission or threatens the inclusivity of its student body. The continuing debate of censorship, free speech, and hate speech is an issue that is, without a doubt, difficult to resolve, but the framework Professor Post provides is a strong first step in the right direction.

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