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Thursday, March 9, 2017


                                                      ALLAN C. BROWNFELD
March 9, 2017
Attacks on free speech, particularly on the nation's college and university campuses, seem to be mounting.  In early March, hundreds of students at Middlebury College in Vermont shouted down Charles Murray, the widely read and controversial social scientist. When Dr. Murray rose to speak, he was shouted down by most of the more than 400 students packed into the room.  They chanted, "Racist, sexist, anti-gay, Charles Murray go away." After almost 20 minutes , it was clear that he would not be able to deliver his lecture. Anticipating that such an outcry might happen, Murray was moved to a separate room equipped with a video camera so that Allison Stanger, a Middlebury professor of international politics and economics could interview him over a live stream. Bill Burger, a spokesman for the college, said that Murray's right to free speech should be protected and that "no one should have the heckler's veto."

The protestors at Middlebury were agitated about the 1994 book, "The Bell Curve," in which Murray, a social scientist at the American Enterprise Institute, and co-author Richard  J. Herrnstein, a Harvard University psychologist, examined the consensus that, controlling for socioeconomic status and possible IQ test bias, cognitive  ability is somewhat heritable, the black/white differential had narrowed and millions of blacks had higher IQs than millions of whites. The authors said they were"resolutely agnostic " concerning the role of genes and the social environment and said that even if it were determined that genetics "are part of the story," there would be "no reason to treat individuals differently." For the protestors, however, the very idea of discussing the question of genetics and IQ must forever be off the table.

At Middlebury, once the interview began in the second room, protestors swarmed into the hallway, chanting and pulling fire alarms.Still, the interview was completed and officials, including Prof. Stanger, escorted Murray out the back of the building. There, several masked protestors began pushing and shoving Murray and Stanger.  According to Burger, "Someone grabbed Allison's hair and twisted her neck."  After the two got into a car, Burger reports, protestors pounded on it, rocked it back and forth, and jumped onto the hood. Prof Stanger later went to a hospital where she was put in a neck brace."

Prof Stanger, herself a liberal Democrat, says, "I was genuinely surprised and troubled to learn that some of my faculty colleagues had rendered judgment on Dr. Murray's work and character while openly admitting that they had not read anything he had written. With the best of intentions, they offered their leadership to enraged students, and we all know what the results were.  I want you to know what it feels like to look out at a sea of students yelling obscenities at other members of my beloved community.  I saw some of my faculty colleagues who had publicly acknowledged that they had not read anything Dr. Murray had written join the effort to shut down the lecture. This was the saddest day of my life. We must all recognize the precious inheritance we have as fellow Americans and defend the Constitution against all its enemies. Both foreign and domestic." 

Whether or not one agrees with Charles Murray is not the point. As The New York Times declared in an editorial, "Smothering Speech At Middlebury,":  "Mr. Murray is an academic, with an argument to make about class in America---from his 2012 book 'Coming Apart'---and maybe it is flawed.  But Middlebury students had no chance to challenge him on any of his views.  Thought and persuasion , questions and answers, were eclipsed by intimidation. True ideas need testing by false ones , lest they become mere prejudices and thoughtless slogans. Free speech is a sacred right and it needs protecting, now more than ever. Middlebury's president, Laurie Patton, did this admirably in defending Mr. Murray's invitation and delivering a public apology to him that Middlebury's thoughtless agitators should have delivered themselves."

There is reason for concern that belief in free speech is diminishing among younger Americans, particularly college students. A 2015 Pew survey found that 40% of millennials believe the government should be able to prevent people from saying offensive things about minority groups, compared with 24% of baby boomers. Time Magazine notes that, "We now live in an increasingly polarized and tribal country.  We've sorted ourselves digitally, which makes us less likely to encounter opposing viewpoints and less worried about offending our like-minded pals. Instead of fueling a marketplace of ideas, as the founders envisioned, speech becomes a way for groups to police their own boundaries while lobbing rhetorical bombs against opponents. The aim is not to debate but to dominate....In America today, speech is everywhere. It's the listening that has gone missing."

One of the reasons many young people appear less committed to free speech may be that we are failing to transmit our history and values to the next generation. Historian David McCullough argues that bad history textbooks are as great a threat to American freedoms as terrorists. "Something is eating away at the national memory," he said several years ago in his Jefferson lecture for the National Endowment for the Humanities, "and a nation or a community or a society can suffer as much from the adverse effects of amnesia as can an individual. For a free, self-governing people, something more than a vague familiarity with history is essential if we are to hold onto and sustain our freedom."

More than two thirds of college students and administrators who,participated in a national survey were unable to remember that freedom of religion and the press are guaranteed by the Bill of Rights. In surveys conducted at 339 colleges and universities, more than one-fourth of students and administrators did not list freedom of speech as an essential right protected by the First Amendment. Allan Charles Kors, president of the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education (FIRE), says that, "If one thinks  of the First Amendment as a foundational American Liberty, the ignorance and misunderstanding of it by administrators at our nation's colleges and universities is frightening, and the general ignorance and misunderstanding of it by students is quite depressing."

The assault on free speech at Middlebury College, and similar efforts to silence free speech at colleges and universities across the country, shows  us where a failure to transmit our history, our culture and our values can lead. This attack on free speech should be of concern to both liberals and conservatives, for the very future of a free and open society is endangered by mobs who would silence ideas with which they disagree. When  such mobs are made up of students at respected institutions of higher learning we must ask ourselves what we have done to encourage such anti-intellectual behavior. 

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