Were the student protests at Middlebury a threat to free speech? Two writers duke it out.


One hot-button issue. Two opposing views. Three rounds of fiery debate updated in real time. This is Actually.

The recent student protest at Middlebury College in Vermont led to a canceled talk by controversial conservative author of The Bell Curve, Charles Murray, and a violent altercation between students and Murray that left a liberal Middlebury professor, Allison Stanger, in a neck brace nursing a concussion.

While everyone condemns the violence, what happened before that remains a topic of hot debate. Some saw the student protest — which shut down Murray's speech and forced him and Stanger to record their talk away from an audience — as a warranted action against a harmful campus presence. Others saw it as an alarming assault on free speech in an academic environment.

Mic asked two writers to argue the issue under tight constraints: three rounds, no more than 200 words per round and all responses have to be made today.

Peter Moskowitz, left, and Robby Soave, right.

Peter Moskowitz is a freelance journalist and author of How to Kill a City: Gentrification, Inequality and the Fight for the Neighborhood. He is the co-founder of Study Hall, a shared workspace for freelance journalists, writers and creatives. 

Robby Soave is an associate editor at Reason.com. He won a 2015 Southern California Journalism Award for "Is the UVA Rape Story a Gigantic Hoax?", a skeptical analysis of Rolling Stone's "A Rape on Campus" published months before the magazine retracted the article. 

We chose Robby to go first by a coin flip. At the end, we'll include a poll so that readers can weigh in on whose argument is more convincing.

Round 1 — Opening Arguments

Robby Soave: The case for letting Charles Murray speak at Middlebury — or at any other campus that extends him a platform — is the case for the project of higher education. A person's ideas might be misguided, or even actively harmful, but how can students know that they ought to reject his views unless they first listen to what he has to say?

It's important to define some terms. What happened at Middlebury earlier this month did not impugn the First Amendment: Middlebury is a private college, and has a legal right to be as speech-permitting, or as censorial, as it sees fit.  But administrators have decided — rightly, in my view — that a successful educational environment requires faithfulness to the spirit of the First Amendment.

Peter Moskowitz: As Robby alluded to, this is not about a legal definition of "free speech" (only government can impinge on that), but about platforms. In my view, and in the view of many Middlebury students, the platform of people like Charles Murray is already well-known enough: Its speakers have their voices heard on network television and in Trump's administration. Their views are codified into our laws. Murray's platform is why black people are incarcerated at such high rates in this country, and why Middlebury and every other college is so white. 

Most defending Murray would not defend a pedophile or a terrorist, because to give those people platforms would be actively harmful. So what you are saying when you defend Murray is not that all speech matters, but that his speech, unlike that of pedophiles and terrorists, still deserves a platform. Why you feel that way is your problem, but if you'd like to couch your support of racist platforms in the language of free speech, I expect to see you on the front lines fighting next time a leftist protester is arrested, or someone's phone is tapped because its owner is saying something the government doesn't like.

Round 2 — Rebuttal 

Soave: Forgive me if this isn't a very PC thing to say, but what would be the problem with giving a platform to a pedophile, Nazi or otherwise repellant person? I would expect the audience to come away more knowledgeable about these evils — not to embrace pedophilia or Nazism.

In any case, Peter is right that many so-called defenders of free speech are hypocrites: They don't care when their own side does it. Not me, though. As a libertarian, I'm equally offended by right-wing censorship and left-wing censorship. Silencing dissenters is a problem, whether the perpetrators are student radicals, conservative PACs or Republican legislators. No one is required to extend a platform to anyone else — but if a platform is extended, bystanders ought not to hijack it.

Though I am not in sympathy with Murray's views, it's folly to write him off entirely. His more recent book, Coming Apart, articulates the resentments of the struggling white working class — the voters who gave us President Donald Trump. The median household income of a Middlebury student is $244,300. How could anyone suggest that it was desirable, or brave, for incredibly privileged students to deny their peers the opportunity to learn something about the concerns of a politically relevant swath of less-wealthy voters?

Moskowitz: People in power have the loudest megaphones. Speech is contextual, wrapped up in history and power. It's not some neutral entity.

An example: I don't believe it's necessary to ban swastikas here, but it makes sense Germany would after World War II – swastikas were a form of free expression that was directly harmful.

In the context of the U.S. in 2017, when black people are being murdered by police, when Trump is cutting safety nets for the poor, Murray's speech is similarly harmful. He's advocated that people of color's lives are less worthy than whites.

Yes, Middlebury is very rich, and Murray is largely responsible for that — his "research," which has been parroted by many in our government, supports the idea that the rich and white deserve the opportunities they're given, while everyone else is just lazy or stupid. Should he be able to conduct this racist research? Sure. Does that mean he deserves a platform to further it? No.

If Murray's view was an outlier, tossed in the bin of passé thought, maybe it would be harmless to have him speak (though still pointless). But it's not. Context matters.

Round 3 — Closing Arguments

Soave: The nature of power is thornier than Peter admits. Middlebury administrators have ostensibly more power than their students, and yet they were quite literally powerless to stop the protesters from shouting down Charles Murray and assaulting his escort.

But the best equalizer of power, historically, is free speech. Legal regimes and cultural norms that protect the rights of everyone — commoner or king — to speak their minds are the ultimate checks on authority. The world where heretical and offensive thinkers are denied the opportunity to speak, and punished for doing so, is the world of the not-so-distant past: the Red Scare, the Salem witch trials, the Spanish Inquisition and so on. Today, the racial equality activist — trying to survive in a system where police authority is shown tremendous deference — should insist on free speech for all as a means of preserving his own right to be a social change agent.

Peter says banning the swastika in post-Nazi Germany is obviously defensible. I'm not so sure. I worry that we imbue offensive views with a kind of dark power when we no-platform them. It's like saying "He Who Must Not Be Named" in place of "Voldemort." We should respond to offensive speech, even ridicule it, not cower in fear of it.

Moskowitz: "The best equalizer of power, historically, is free speech," is inaccurate. Speech is an important part of action, but historically power has not conceded anything without violence or other forms of direct action. The Civil Rights movement had some great speeches, but it wouldn't have won anything without sit-ins; it wouldn't have been effective without without the Black Panthers showing their might. You don't win against a tyrant through speech alone.

I believe we cherish a very specific version of free speech in this country because we have a story passed down about what ideals this country was founded on. But it was only founded on those ideals after shooting a bunch of British people, and carrying out genocide against Native Americans, enslaving Africans and creating laws that ensured those in power would stay in power. We did not convince-via-free-speech our way to modern America. I'm sure our founding fathers were great speechifiers, but they grew their power through direct action.

So to frame Murray's words or Middlebury protesters' actions as about free speech is inaccurate. It's about power: who has it (people like Murray), who doesn't (the people Middlebury students represent through protest) and how to change that dynamic.

Now that the debate is over, please cast your vote for a winner below: