Violent Attack on Free Speech at Middlebury College
by Allan Brownfeld
ALEXANDRIA, VIRGINIA – Attacks on free speech, particularly on the nation's college and university campuses, seem to be mounting.
In early March, hundreds of students at Middlebury College in Vermont shouted down Charles Murray, the widely read and controversial social scientist.
The protestors at Middlebury were agitated about the 1994 book, The Bell Curve, in which Murray, a social scientist at the American Enterprise Institute, and co-author Richard J. Herrnstein, a Harvard University psychologist, examined the consensus that, controlling for socioeconomic status and possible IQ test bias, cognitive ability is somewhat heritable, the black/white differential had narrowed, and millions of blacks had higher IQs than millions of whites.
At Middlebury, once the interview began in the second room, the protestors swarmed into the hallway, chanting and pulling fire alarms. Still, the interview was completed and officials, including Professor Stanger, escorted Murray out through the back of the building. There, several masked protestors began pushing and shoving Murray and Stanger. According to Burger, “Someone grabbed [Professor] Allison Stanger's hair and twisted her neck." After the two got into a car, Burger reports, protestors pounded on it, rocked it back and forth, and jumped onto the hood. Professor Stanger later went to a hospital, where she was put in a neck brace.”
Professor Stanger, herself a liberal Democrat, says, “I was genuinely surprised and troubled to learn that some of my faculty colleagues had rendered judgment on Dr. Murray's work and character, while openly admitting that they had not read anything he had written. With the best of intentions, they offered their leadership to enraged students, and we all know what the results were. I want you to know what it feels like to look out at a sea of students yelling obscenities at other members of my beloved community. I saw some of my faculty colleagues join the effort to shut down the lecture. This was the saddest day of my life. We must all recognize the precious inheritance we have as fellow Americans and defend the Constitution against all its enemies, both foreign and domestic.”
There is reason for concern that belief in free speech is diminishing among younger Americans, particularly college students. A 2015 Pew survey found that 40 percent of millennials believe the government should be able to prevent people from saying offensive things about minority groups, compared with 24 percent of Baby Boomers.
Time Magazine notes, “We now live in an increasingly polarized and tribal country. We’ve sorted ourselves digitally, which makes us less likely to encounter opposing viewpoints and less worried about offending our like-minded pals. Instead of fueling a marketplace of ideas, as the Founders envisioned, speech becomes a way for groups to police their own boundaries while lobbing rhetorical bombs against opponents. The aim is not to debate but to dominate.... In America today, speech is everywhere. It’s the listening that has gone missing.”
One of the reasons many young people appear less committed to free speech may be that we are failing to transmit our history and values to the next generation. Historian David McCullough argues that bad history textbooks are as great a threat to American freedoms as terrorists. “Something is eating away at the national memory,” he said several years ago in his Jefferson lecture for the National Endowment for the Humanities, “and a nation or a community or a society can suffer as much from the adverse effects of amnesia as can an individual. For a free, self-governing people, something more than a vague familiarity with history is essential if we are to hold onto and sustain our freedom.”
The assault on free speech at Middlebury College, and similar efforts to silence free speech at colleges and universities across the country, show us where a failure to transmit our history, our culture, and our values can lead. This attack on free speech should be of concern to both liberals and conservatives -- the very future of a free and open society is endangered by mobs who would silence ideas with which they disagree. When such mobs are made up of students at respected institutions of higher learning, we must ask ourselves what we have done to encourage such anti-intellectual behavior.
@ 2021 by Allan Brownfeld and FGF Books. All rights reserved.
Allan Brownfeld is the author of several books, including Hung Up On Freedom; The New Left; and Dossier On Douglas. He is co-author with J. Michael Waller of The Revolution Lobby.
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