Two years after a mob of activists silenced Charles Murray and attacked his debate partner, Allison Stanger, Middlebury College is again permitting censorship to rule the day. But this time, it is the administration, rather than the students, shutting down the debate.
Earlier this week, Middlebury officials cancelled a planned event featuring Ryszard Legutko, a Polish politician and philosopher. Ryszard is known for his conservative social views, and has criticized "homosexuals, Africans, and feminists." This led many on campus to criticize the Alexander Hamilton Forum, a group associated with the college's political science department that seeks to create stimulating discussions on campus, for inviting him.
"By giving Mr. Legutko a platform to promote his book, you legitimize the destructive party and government that he is associated with," wrote Thomas Gawell, a recent graduate, in an op-ed for The Middlebury Campus, the student paper. "As a Middlebury alumnus from Poland, I am truly hurt that you showed such level of insensitivity and ignorance. I am all for Middlebury inviting speakers that hold views different than those of the campus majority. But you could at least seek speakers who are not bigots and hypocrites."
Legutko was slated to discuss his views on democracy, not his views on homosexuality. Even so, student-activists had planned to protest the talk and were organizing an LGBT-affirming event to take place outside the forum. Importantly, as the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education's Nico Perrino notes, the activists had no intention of shutting down Legutko. On a Facebook page for protest organizers, an activist leader said, "It is absolutely, unequivocally not the intent of this protest and those participating in this protest to prevent Legutko from speaking. Disruptive behavior of this nature will not be tolerated."
This makes the college's decision to cancel the talk very troubling indeed. No doubt the administration did not want a repeat of the Murray debacle. But preemptively shutting down difficult conversations out of an abundance of caution is really no different from shutting them down due to mob pressure. The administration claimed that its decision "was based on an assessment of our ability to respond effectively to potential security and safety risks for both the lecture and the event students had planned in response." This sounds like excuse-making.
Per one student's request, a political science professor, Matthew Dickinson, invited Legutko to address his class instead. This is better than nothing, but did not and could not have included everyone who wished to attend the Hamilton Forum event.
A college that values the free exchange of ideas should be able to host a controversial or provocative speaker—and supporters and critics alike should be able to show up, ask tough questions, or protest in a manner that does not infringe on the rights of anyone else. That Middlebury has once again failed this test is not an encouraging sign.