The college and PEN America presented a panel on Thursday, Jan. 11 on free speech and inclusion, entitled “Whose Freedom, Whose Speech? The Future of Community and Free Speech at Middlebury.” This panel was designed to continue the ongoing conversations at the college about the relationship between free speech and community values since last spring.
The panel was a part of the Critical Conversations series that was started in the fall of 2017 in an effort to engage the diversity of perspectives on campus in discussion. PEN America, the college’s partner in the panel, is a nonprofit organization that works with colleges and universities to address issues of free expression.
The panel was moderated by Suzanne Nossel, the executive director of PEN America. The panelists included Roberto Lint Sagarena, director of intercultural programs and associate professor of American studies at the college, Elizabeth Siyuan Lee ’17, campaigns strategist at Coworker.org, James Lyall ’02, executive director of the Vermont ACLU, and Nabiha Syed, the assistant general counsel at Buzzfeed.
The discussion began with demographic questions to get a sense of the backgrounds and perspectives of audience members on how much the college is doing to promote free speech and inclusivity.
Syed discussed the role that the First Amendment law related to free speech plays in public versus private universities. She said that, while the law is quite narrow, there is cultural meaning layered on top of what the law says that gives private universities the opportunity to think about their values without strictly adhering to the First Amendment. Lyall agreed that private colleges have the unique opportunity to make value judgments about what type of speech should be allowed on campus.
Lyall said he felt it is critical that the college continues the difficult conversations that have come out of the Charles Murray talk.
Sagarena said that to call the Charles Murray events an attack on free speech oversimplifies the significant events leading up to his talk. He said, “We cannot think about the event in a vacuum. The response to Charles Murray was a proxy for events happening nationally following the election.”
Syed echoed his thoughts, saying, “Free speech is messy, loud, and sloppy because it invokes moments of great emotional and political turmoil and the national backdrop of the Charles Murray event stoked that flame.”
Lee reminded the other panelists, “We need to see Middlebury as a home, not just a platform for ideas. While we need to preserve a platform for people to discuss, it feels more violent when we live on this campus and there’s only around 2,500 of us.” She went on to say that the classroom should be the place where students can engage with uncomfortable ideas so that they can actually discuss those ideas.
Syed warned that, “When a group of people protest so loudly that the person can’t be heard, you open yourselves up to others doing the same to you, which leads to a race to the bottom.”
The conversation then turned to the role that the college should have in policing free speech online. Sagarena said that he feels that Facebook posts are private and should not be part of the college’s dominion. Lee agreed but said, “When you insert yourself into the public sphere, you need to take responsibility for the speech you put out there.” Syed argued that many people have taken to expressing themselves online when they feel that other systems of justice have failed them.
As the conversation turned to hate speech, Syed said, “We carve out categories of speech as being beyond the pale all the time, but historically we have refused to carve out hate speech.” She argued that it is important to pay attention to who is drawing the lines for what speech is acceptable. She and other panelists also emphasized the importance of paying attention to the matrix of power that exists around speech.
In a poll at the end of the panel and after time was given for questions, 29 percent of students said a lot more needs to be done for open expression on campus, while 50 percent of faculty said a lot more needs to be done. Twenty-eight percent of students also said they had not yet decided, which makes it clear that these conversations continue to be critical to understand how our campus will move forward with these issues.