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Monday, Dec 11, 2023

Administrators Failed Protesters and Lecture Organizers

<span class="photocreditinline"><a href="">BENJY RENTON</a></span><br />Ryszard Legutko outside the Robert A. Jones House on April 17.
Ryszard Legutko outside the Robert A. Jones House on April 17.

Last week, the administration canceled a talk by conservative Polish scholar and politician Ryszard Legutko due to safety concerns. Prior to the cancellation, students had planned a non-disruptive protest in conjunction with a queer pride celebration to challenge Legutko’s homophobia and misogyny. 

The administration took two days to specify that student protesters were not the cause of their security concerns. Regardless of the administration’s good intentions, the lack of specificity about the threat subjected Middlebury and its student protesters to an unjust swarm of national criticism which understood protesters to be the cause of the security threat. 

Many student organizers devoted hours to carefully planning the protest in accordance with Middlebury’s new protest policies. The protest had been meticulously set up to be non-disruptive and strictly non-violent; the student protesters did their part to adhere to college policy. 

Middlebury, however, did not uphold its end of the bargain. The institution failed to provide an adequate space for free expression. Any vetting that took place was obviously not thorough enough to prepare the college to accommodate Legutko’s visit. Had the administration been more prepared, they could have hired additional security to enable both the talk and the protest to proceed as planned. 

Although the public talk at the Kirk Alumni center did not take place, Legutko did speak on campus, to Political Science Professor Matthew Dickinson’s “American Presidency” seminar in the Robert A. Jones House conference room. While Legutko’s appearance there was initially private and restricted to the seminar’s nine registered students, the talk became somewhat public as word spread throughout campus and more students began to arrive. At the talk, asked about his views on homosexuality, Legutko replied, “Same-sex marriage is against the fundamental law of the human race.” His comment is disgusting, and would most likely lead to disciplinary action if said by a student in the classroom. 

Because student protesters were not informed of this semi-private talk in advance, they had no adequate opportunity to protest or challenge Legutko’s ideas. This was partly due to their concern for their own safety. After the office of the provost cited unnamed “potential security and safety risks” in the email canceling the event, some students who had dressed for the pride event did not know whether they were safe on campus.

Although the cancellations of both the protest and the talk are regrettable, we disagree with the choice to give Legutko a private platform after student protesters had been denied a chance for public expression. Students have the right not only to hear and debate ideas with which they disagree, but also to protest them. The college’s handbook specifically states that students may express ideological opposition so long as their protests are non-disruptive and non-violent. Professor Dickinson has said it was a shame that the student protest did not take place, but the decision to invite Legutko to speak in R.A.J. showed disrespect and disregard for the students who had spent hours planning the protest. 

Middlebury was deeply divided after the Charles Murray protests in 2017, but the college community is now largely in agreement that the Legutko protest ought to have happened. Student organizers deliberately planned their protest to accommodate college policy, but were robbed of their platform. The community could have benefited from the protest as well as the talk. The two events together would also have been a perfect opportunity to test the new protest policy. 

In the future, Middlebury must seriously consider how it can simultaneously support both protesters and speakers in its quest for a robust public sphere; these two goals do not have to be at odds.