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Friday, Jun 2, 2023

Lessons Learned on Controversial Speakers

As a learning institution, we believe Middlebury College should always look toward the educational possibilities of events and conversations. Two years after the fracturing of our campus around Charles Murray’s visit, what can we say we have learned about hosting divisive and controversial speakers at Middlebury whose statements and actions threaten or demean underrepresented groups, and how did those lessons manifest themselves in this past week’s canceled speech by Ryszard Legutko?

The first lesson is that the paramount concern over all others is the physical safety of our community, particularly the students who make Middlebury’s campus their home by attending the college. The administrators who oversee public safety decided that given the way the events had been planned, they could not guarantee safety on April 17 and thus canceled the lecture at the last minute. The administration has confirmed that there was no specific threat, but rather, per lessons learned over the past two years, the number of attendees at both the speech and protest required more security staffing than available on short notice to be able to ensure everyone’s safety. There should be a thorough review as to why safety could not be guaranteed and how to handle events like these better in the future.

The student protesters demonstrated that they are exceptional learners around these issues. They explicitly framed their protest as a non-disruptive event that would affirm their own identities, but not interfere with Legutko’s speech in any way. They were transparent in their planning, and openly communicated with the administration. They followed every aspect of our protest policies to exercise their rights to speech and protest. The fact that student protesters have been wrongly blamed by many in the media, by prominent figures in the so-called “campus free speech” movement, and by members of our own community, is a travesty. We call upon those outside figures and especially Middlebury colleagues to retract that blame and apologize for their mischaracterizations.

What did those faculty colleagues who invited Legutko learn from the past two years? It would seem that they learned much about how to create a partisan firestorm, how to mischaracterize and defame students, and how to avoid being held accountable for their actions. Specifically, we ask for a public accounting as to how the organizers of the Hamilton Forum met or failed in their responsibility to ensure public safety per the post-2017 policies, for their willingness to withhold or misrepresent relevant information about speakers to colleagues, and for their unwillingness to be transparent and communicative about their own actions.

We support open academic inquiry and free speech, including the student protesters’ plan to exercise their free speech in a non-disruptive way. In fact, as was amply demonstrated by the uneventful talks throughout the academic year, including by other conservative speakers sponsored by the Hamilton Forum, there is ample space on campus to hear diverse viewpoints. We ask that those who wish to bring speakers carefully consider the effect of such speakers and the format in which they are presented, on the campus climate and our student, faculty, and staff colleagues. While we all should learn to engage productively with hurtful rhetoric, we question whether this can be accomplished by giving divisive speakers an unchallenged platform without proper contextualization or framing. The maintenance of “a culture of reasoned, civil discussion and debate across political and intellectual differences” requires all members of a community to act in good faith; we call upon our colleagues who have failed to do so to demonstrate that they too are open to learning lessons about honesty and humility.

*Editor's Note: The members of the Middlebury Faculty Caucus for an Inclusive Community can be found here. Learn more about the group here.