USA Education

Campuses take a stand when protests go too far

Bridging the divide

In a move to expose students to more diverse viewpoints, colleges and universities have invited controversial figures to speak, resulting in disruptive protests. Here's a look at how three schools are drawing the line between the free exchange of ideas and the right to protest those ideas.

Middlebury College students turn their backs to author Charles Murray (seen in the background) and chant, disrupting his talk in Middlebury, Vt., March 2, 2017. The confrontation later turned violent.
Lisa Rathke/AP/File
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The students turned their backs. They read in unison their objections and chanted. Unable to start his campus talk, libertarian Charles Murray was escorted by college officials to another room where his speech could be streamed on the internet.

The March 2 confrontation at Middlebury College got worse. As Mr. Murray was leaving the building, a small group of demonstrators confronted him. According to accounts (here and here), campus guards shoved aside a protester blocking the way and violence ensued. Protesters rocked his car. The Middlebury professor who was the evening’s moderator suffered a concussion. (Reports vary as to whether it was intentional or an accident.)

The incident – and violent protests a month earlier that prompted University of California, Berkeley, officials to cancel a speech by now former Breitbart editor Milo Yiannopoulos – are causing some liberal arts schools to take a long look in the mirror: Are they really places where controversial views can be aired and debated civilly? Or, as protesters assert, are they giving a platform to speakers who espouse hate?

Although violence is rare, campus activism aimed at discouraging or disrupting controversial speakers has become increasingly common – and the pushback to it is growing. For example:

  • Four days after the fracas at Middlebury, faculty posted a statement of principles around “free inquiry.” And Middlebury President Laurie Patton penned several open letters, highlighting among other things a much less publicized meeting after the protest where students, faculty, and staff from a range of political perspectives talked about building bridges. “We are also committed to upholding the right to speech, even unpopular speech, especially in times of division or uncertainty,” she wrote in a March 6 letter. “If colleges and universities cannot serve this role, who can?”
  • After several speeches were disrupted at the University of Chicago, a specially convened committee issued a report March 7, noting: “Disruptive conduct may itself be a form of speech, but that does not mean that it is a protected form of speech. Like other forms of civil disobedience, disruptive conduct may lead to disciplinary consequences for those engaged in such conduct.”
  • Although Northwestern University hasn’t experienced such headline-grabbing events, its undergraduate student government passed a resolution March 1 urging the university to enforce policies related to academic freedom, the right to protest peacefully, the need to protect against censorship, and the right of invited guests to speak “without the threat of disruption.” Sponsors ranged from libertarian to Republican to left-leaning independent, says senior Lauren Thomas, who crafted the resolution.

Northwestern’s resolution was hailed as a first by Heterodox Academy, a network of professors who say declines in political diversity and willingness to debate difficult subjects are undermining the quality of higher education on many campuses.

“When students get out of college and have to interact with clients, bosses, colleagues … you can’t pick and choose in the real world what people get to say,” says Jeremy Willinger, communications director of Heterodox Academy. When conservative speakers come to campus, he says, “that’s an opportunity for both students on the left and students on the right to have their ideas challenged, … to ask questions, to engage.”

Those who say free speech is being stifled on campuses say that's particularly egregious at public universities, such as Berkeley, which receive government funding.

An event or an endorsement?

But it’s not that simple, protesters argue. By giving a speaker a platform, a school at some level is endorsing the speaker’s ideas as worthy of attention. The more controversial those ideas, the worse that proposition looks to protesters.

“When people talk about free speech as just a matter of not disrupting people who already have a platform, it bypasses the question of who’s able to get a platform in the first place,” says Ben Powell, a Northwestern student who serves on the executive board of the student government and opposed Ms. Thomas’s resolution.

In the run-up to Murray’s speech at Middlebury, students and professors asked the administration to rescind his invitation by a conservative student group. An open letter signed by 58 faculty and post-doctoral students asked President Patton not to introduce Murray. “His work has employed a combination of eugenics and other pseudo-science that has time and time again shown to be based on false premises, inadequate research and erroneous conclusions,” the letter read “He is not an academic nor a ‘critically acclaimed’ public scholar, but a well-funded phony.”

Murray, a fellow at the American Enterprise Institute (AEI), is the latest in a long line of authors who have generated controversy by writing that intelligence is at least partly inherited; that some groups are therefore inherently smarter than others; and that IQ, more than any other indicator, determines success in life. Often, these writers have compared races (usually black vs. white) and generated a backlash when they speak on college campuses. The Southern Poverty Law Center has branded him a “white nationalist.”

But supporters on the right argue that the left unfairly caricatures Murray as a genetic racist when, in fact, his focus has been on class. The father of two biracial children (his first wife was Thai), he wrote in his most famous book, “The Bell Curve,” that environment as well as genetics are likely to have an impact on intelligence. He focused his 2012 book, “Coming Apart,” on upper- and lower-class whites to show that class divisions are more important than racial ones.

Still, his ideas that certain groups don’t have the intelligence to rise naturally beyond a certain station challenge liberal ideas about the power of education, desegregation, and affirmative action to transform an individual’s environment and establish a more equal society. Murray’s thesis also provide fodder for racists and neo-Nazis.

A new normal?

Such ideas have sparked protests at colleges before. But the violence is new, Murray writes on AEI’s website: “I have had considerable experience with campus protests. Until last Thursday, all of the ones involving me have been as carefully scripted as kabuki: The college administration meets with the organizers of the protest and ground rules are agreed upon. The protesters have so many minutes to do such and such. It is agreed that after the allotted time, they will leave or desist…. At least a couple of dozen times, I have been able to give my lecture to an attentive (or at least quiet) audience despite an organized protest.”

At Middlebury, the protesters did not agree to ground rules, he writes. “If this becomes the new normal, the number of colleges willing to let themselves in for an experience like Middlebury’s will plunge to near zero.”

At Northwestern, the debate over tactics is ongoing. Mr. Powell argues there is a moral argument to be made for disruptive protest that targets views and policies that “cause real harm to people.”

But for Thomas, disruption has a chilling effect on free expression, and it affects all types of students and faculty, not just conservatives. Among the examples she cited in her resolution:

  • Northwestern’s administration censored an academic medical journal because of public relations’ concerns over the impact it would have on the medical school’s brand;
  • Palestinian activist Bassem Eid canceled a scheduled speech at Northwestern’s Hillel last year after trouble on another campus and information that hecklers were intending to prevent him from speaking freely;
  • Administrations at other campuses have rejected certain student groups, such as Fordham University not allowing Students for Justice in Palestine.

“I personally have learned from having views that do not agree with me around me, and I would like to see other students have the same opportunity,” says Thomas, a moderate conservative who is studying economics and political science. “You can’t learn if everyone around you is just agreeing with what you say.”