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In Support of Free Expression on College Campuses

Student organizations and administrators should prioritize the intellectual contributions potential speakers could make

By The Crimson Editorial Board

On March 2, the social scientist Charles Murray, author of the controversial book “The Bell Curve: Intelligence and Class Structure in American Life,” was set to speak at Middlebury College. In a now-infamous incident, student protesters initially turned their backs to Murray and subsequently shouted him down. When he was escorted into a separate room to complete his interview with the moderator of the event, Middlebury professor Allison Stanger, protesters responded by pulling a fire alarm. Finally, after Stanger and Murray exited the venue, they were attacked by a mob of protesters, resulting in a neck injury and concussion to Stanger.

We wholeheartedly condemn these acts, especially those that led to violence and physical intimidation, against both the speaker and moderator at the event.

In the wake of this incident, Princeton professor Robert P. George and Harvard professor Cornel West drafted a statement entitled “Truth Seeking, Democracy, and Freedom of Thought and Expression”. The document has accrued over 600 signatories—among them eleven Harvard professors. We support the sentiment of this constructive statement.

In particular, we too affirm that “cultivation and practice of the virtues of intellectual humility, openness of mind, and, above all, love of truth”—which are attained through an openness to opposing viewpoints and free speech—are the premise of a democratic society and a cornerstone to liberal institutions such as Harvard. These are virtues that were evidently lacking at Middlebury College.

Moreover, we believe that institutions of higher learning would do well to strive towards the ideal of discourse and open exchange put forth in this motion; most of all, they must prioritize the pursuit of truth and humility as the informing principles of free speech. All too often, the issue of free speech on college campuses is couched as a butting of heads between students that want to invite potentially controversial speakers merely for the sake of provocation or to “test” that their campus can tolerate speakers with such viewpoints, and closed-minded protesters that seek to stymie free speech. This statement reminds all parties involved that the pursuit of truth is a collaborative one, and that groups with conflicting ideas should seek to understand rather than simply antagonize each other.

For organizations hosting events, this means publicizing the intellectual contributions they believe their speakers will make to a campus. We hope other students will in turn approach events with an open mind and understand what prospective speakers have to offer. Moreover, when possible, speakers should be held accountable through the possibility of questions from the audience, in order to assure that they too are subject to scrutiny and that their ideas are challenged.

For students who object to speakers’ ideas, we urge an openness to the potential intellectual contributions that those with whom they disagree could make to their communities. Though we support students’ right to protest—it is another cornerstone of a free society—we believe this right should be exercised with utmost caution, and in a civil manner. After all, if students believe that a speaker’s ideas are unequivocally wrong, they would do better to civilly debate the speaker rather than protest violently.

We stand by our previous view that certain speakers have little intellectual contribution to make to college campuses. Indeed, as we said then, not "all speakers are equally worth listening to.” That does not mean they should be shouted down or disinvited. It is difficult to determine which ideas are valid, and drawing such a line is somewhat beside the point of improving the campus climate for exchange of ideas. It is a spirit of collaboration and free exchange that is indispensable.

This staff editorial solely represents the majority view of The Crimson Editorial Board. It is the product of discussions at regular Editorial Board meetings. In order to ensure the impartiality of our journalism, Crimson editors who choose to opine and vote at these meetings are not involved in the reporting of articles on similar topics.

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