Free Speech

Charles Murray, Free Speech, and the College Campus

No sooner had One Thing after Another posted an essay entitled “Milo Yiannopoulos, Free Speech, and the College Campus”  that Charles Murray’s encounter with protesters at Middlebury College became national news. In discussing Yiannopoulos, this blog developed various criteria that a school could use to determine which visitors are suitable to speak on a college campus. Do these ideas have any applicability to the Middlebury-Murray imbroglio?

A political scientist and sociologist currently associated with the American Enterprise Institute (AEI), Murray had been invited to Middlebury by a local student chapter of the AEI to speak about his latest work, Coming Apart: The State of White America (2012). Murray, however, is most famous (or infamous) for having co-authored The Bell Curve: Intelligence and Class Structure in American Life (1994). Although the book’s claims about the relationship between intelligence and social status have inspired a great deal of criticism, it is the work’s arguments about the influence of race on intelligence that have sparked the most controversy. It is primarily for this reason that a number of students appeared at his lecture, began chanting, and prevented Murray from speaking. When it became clear that he would not be able to begin, let alone complete, his discussion, Middlebury College administrators went to Plan B, and took him to a room with an interviewer so their conversation could be live-streamed to the college community without interruption. When this interview was complete, Murray, Allison Stanger (the political science professor who interviewed Murray), and Bill Burger (VP for Communications and Chief Marketing Officer at Middlebury) were hustled out a back door by security to a waiting car. Unfortunately, a group of protesters was waiting for them. Stanger was yanked to the ground by her hair (suffering a concussion), and protesters banged and rocked the car as it inched its way out of the crowd.

Of course, news outlets, social media, and those who were there have attempted to impose a grand narrative on this incident: what happened at Middlebury College was depicted as an example of liberal intolerance, an archetypal expression of millennial snowflakery, evidence of the death of free speech on campuses, a symbol of the decline of higher education, a symptom of the college-aged generation’s inexperience in protesting, a skirmish in the battle between liberals and conservatives, a “metaphor for what is wrong with our country,” and so on. The certainty with which these interpretations are propounded contrast with the contradicting stories about just what exactly happened at Middlebury that evening. According to some, Middlebury’s administration all but abetted the protest while others (including Murray himself) argue that the administration acted in exemplary fashion. Charged by almost everybody with irresponsibility and malevolence, the students who protested have responded by claiming that some administrators (mainly Burger) along with various public safety officers engaged in “reckless and dangerous” behavior. And so it goes. Murray has made light of the situation, the protesters are unapologetic, the administration has wrung its hands (while trying to atone for an incident that has turned into a public relations disaster), and the nation seeks to project some meaning on this tempest in a teapot.

One Thing after Another would like to approach this issue from a different angle by asking if Murray should have been invited to Middlebury in the first place. After all, in discussing Milo Yiannopoulos, this blog argued that colleges have a right to bar speakers a) who were not experts in the subjects on which they were invited to speak and b) who treated their audiences without respect. And so the questions become: Is Murray an expert, and has he behaved courteously before his audiences?

Treating first things last and last things first, it would appear that the answer to the second question is a “yes.” Murray has been a regular on the college circuit and does not appear to have treated anybody with contumely. One could argue that by trafficking in racist ideas, Murray has insulted his auditors, but for a number of reasons, One Thing after Another would rather have concepts (and those who promote them) dismissed because of their wrongness, not their offensiveness.

Responding to the first question is somewhat more difficult. For one thing, this blog has argued that questions of expertise should be answered by experts, and this blog is not well versed in sociology. For another, One Thing after Another has asserted repeatedly that there are limits to what historians can and ought to do. This blog, then, hesitates to trespass upon the jurisdiction of another discipline and make definite claims about Murray’s proficiency. However, for the sake of argument, One Thing after Another will adduce certain facts that bear on the question.

The field of academic sociology seems to be either bemused by or hostile to Murray. Murray obtained a Ph.D. in political science from MIT and claims he is not a sociologist, but it is hard to describe what he does if it is not sociology. Critics find problems with his methodology, describe his fieldwork as idiosyncratic, and think his consideration of various questions somewhat blinkered. (See reviews of Coming Apart, his most influential recent work, here, here, and here. And here’s fellow conservative David Frum’s review, although, as Frum explains, he has had words with Murray.) The racism expressed in The Bell Curve (and with a copy at hand, it is quite clear to this blog that the assertions made in Chapter 13 and 14 are indeed racist), seems to be of a piece with research that is quirky and data that appear to be massaged. These problems with Murray’s published works are a function of the fact that they do not appear to have been peer reviewed. Neither The Bell Curve nor Coming Apart underwent a process that is widely considered indispensable to academic publishing. In some ways, though, this omission should not surprise us because Murray is not an academic writing for other academics; he clearly writes for a popular audience and has always enjoyed far more influence with politicians and journalists (witness the extraordinary impact of Losing Ground: American Social Policy, 1950-1980, which played a major role in the formulation of the Welfare Reform Act of 1994).

And yet . . . a number of experts in human intelligence stood by many of Murray’s assertions in The Bell Curve. Moreover, as even critics of Murray point out, he addresses important issues that not everybody feels comfortable confronting, his work is thought-provoking, and his books compel reviewers to articulate their own ideas more clearly. Perhaps we can even find ways to exculpate Murray of some of the charges brought against him. For instance, one could argue that we all make mistakes but those mistakes do not necessarily indicate that we are mountebanks. It is possible, that instead of being some sort of fraud, Murray is a sociologist—just not a very good one partly because he allows his biases (some of them more pernicious than others) to influence his work. Should he be flogged mercilessly for erring? Perchance, Murray, as a libertarian-conservative, is judged rather harshly by academic sociology, which is dominated by progressives.

Is Murray a peddler of “pseudoscience,” or is he a social scientist at a respected think tank who makes people unhappy because he touches upon sensitive matters? One could accumulate evidence to support either finding (One Thing or Another could really use an expert here, for “Awlus a muddle,” to quote Stephen Blackpool). The interesting point here is that if one were so inclined, it would be possible to challenge Murray’s claims to expertise. And that point allows us to engage in an interesting thought experiment. Say Murray is not really an expert and should not have been invited, and say the gatekeepers of the college failed in their duty to keep him away. How should the students have acted?

Shouting down a speaker and assaulting a professor are unacceptable, and One Thing after Another is not impressed by attempts to defend the behavior of the protesting students at Middlebury. This blog’s stance on Yiannopoulos would seem to suggest that students should not engage with a guest who shouldn’t have been invited in the first place. Such a reaction would have been better than what happened at Middlebury, but it would be a bit too easy for everyone—guest and students alike. Matthew Dickinson, a professor of political science at Middlebury, however, had a different solution. According to Dickinson’s blog:

Two days before Murray’s talk I spent my entire weekly politics luncheon discussing Murray’s research in the Bell Curve, and acquainting students with many of the critiques of his findings. My presentation was attended by a packed audience of students and local residents, and many of the students went away primed to do battle with Murray.  A few of them, drawing in part on my slide presentation, put together a pamphlet outlining five criticisms of Murray’s argument in the Bell Curve, which they placed on every seat in Wilson Hall.

In other words, Dickinson sought to prepare his students to challenge Murray. One Thing after Another believes audiences should prepare for non-experts in exactly this way (just as it should for experts). If those without expertise must come, the college community ought to make the best of the situation. Students and faculty should subject these guests to real academic scrutiny and make them understand what a true intellectual exchange really is. Maybe such guests will change their mind, maybe they will understand that no one is buying what they are selling, or maybe they will realize that they are out of their depth. Whatever the case, they might learn something. It is the best that can be hoped for if an administration fails in its task of manning the gate against charlatans. Yelling and pushing at Middlebury, however, led to lost opportunities as well as other pernicious consequences that protesters probably did not fully comprehend until later. As Dickinson points out:

Due to the actions of protesters, my students never had the opportunity to engage Murray beyond a few questions directed at him via Twitter. What’s worse, they now find themselves inaccurately characterized in media outlets as coddled, immature ‘snowflakes’ and ‘liberal fascists’ bent on promoting intolerance and hate.

And that surely does not sound like a satisfactory outcome.

Milo Yiannopoulos, Free Speech, and the College Campus


At the beginning of February, in the wake of protests and riots at UC Berkeley against Milo Yiannopoulos’ proposed visit, One Thing after Another thought it possessed sufficient inspiration to write a post about free speech at colleges—especially as it applied to guests invited to speak on campus. Life intervened, however, and this blog did not quite get around to producing an essay on the topic. Now that Yiannopoulos is back in the news because he has lost his CPAC invitation, his book contract with Simon & Schuster, and his job at Breitbart (all because of his assertion that thirteen-year-old boys have the potential to engage in “consensual” sexual relationships with men twice their age), One Thing after Another feels it has enough momentum to write about free speech. By what standard should one judge whether a Yiannopoulos should be admitted to speak at a campus?

One Thing after Another starts with the proposition that institutions of higher learning, public and private alike, have a right to invite or not invite guests as they wish. Even public schools are not public forums, and administrators have the right to restrict entry when school is in session. The question, of course, is on what grounds administrators should exclude guest speakers from campus.

For reasons that will become very clear, One Thing after Another believes that colleges should ask for something more of their guests than mere legal speech. Brandenburg v. Ohio (1969), which supersedes the “fire in a crowded theater” argument laid down by U.S. v. Schenck (1919), sets a fairly low bar. Inflammatory speech that advocates violence is protected unless it “is directed to inciting or producing imminent lawless action and is likely to incite or produce such action.” And thus, a conviction against Brandenburg (a local leader of the Ohio Ku Klux Klan) for burning a cross and promising “revengeance” against “n******” and “Jews” was overturned. One Thing after Another would prefer not to see cross-burning (or even flag-burning) on campus—not because these things are offensive (which they are) but because they do not advance the mission of a college.

That mission, however, has become increasingly unclear in recent years. Those now in charge of universities are not as well equipped to understand or articulate that purpose as they used to be. Administrators, as Stephen Carter, a law professor at Yale, argued at an Aspen Ideas Festival last year, increasingly do not come from academic backgrounds and do not necessarily understand academic freedom. Trained as administrators, they see their job as “to damp down problems” and avoid all controversy. “They have,” Carter adds, “no sense of the mission of a university.” A constellation of factors have further clouded that sense of mission. For example, due to the increasingly difficult economic environment in which they operate, college is often sold as many different products. These products run the gamut from preparation for the job market to a transformative experience in which the whole person is made anew. Everything from the curriculum to residential life has responded to these pressures, and the jurisdiction of the college has expanded to include more aspects of student life than ever before. Under these circumstances, it is easy to lose sight of what is central to university life and what is ancillary.

So what is central? One could do worse (especially if one works at a Catholic institution) than refer to The Idea of a University by Cardinal John Henry Newman. According to Newman, the point of a university was the “culture of the intellect” or the “real cultivation of the mind.” What was wanted, he argued, was the “the force, the steadiness, the comprehensiveness and the versatility of intellect, the command over our own powers, the instinctive just estimate of things as they pass before us, which sometimes indeed is a natural gift, but commonly is not gained without much effort and the exercise of years.” A real education allowed one to escape a “youth” in which one was “merely dazzled by phenomena, instead of perceiving things as they are.” He favored a liberal education that developed an understanding of how the particulars in the world were united in a single whole. To his way of thinking, a liberal education was an end in itself.

Newman wrote much that was sensible in The Idea of a University. For our purposes, he discussed a number of ideas that are worth remembering today. He expressed a reverence in his approach to liberal education; it was a serious means to the important end of adopting a broad view of the world and thus understanding its unity. He believed such an education should be conducted within a diverse and earnest educational community. And he intimated that it should be carried on by instructors who practiced what they preached—people who were experts in their fields but not so narrowly focused that they could not see the forest for the trees.

These ideas about the mission of a college and how to attain it provide us with some guidance when it comes to determining what kinds of guests should be invited to speak on campus. Above all else, guests must support the ends and means of a liberal education. The other criteria merely follow from this point.

First, guests must be experts in the fields on which they will speak. Clearly, a school can define “expertise” in a variety ways (how this blog defines expertise will become fairly evident). However, it is One Thing after Another’s impression that this definition should be somewhat more restrictive than it has been as of late. Guests have often been invited with an eye toward publicity, and that often means celebrities  find themselves before college audiences where they do not belong. If you need examples, think of the many, many commencement speeches delivered at various schools every year by actors, athletes, comedians, singers, and so on. Or check these ones out (which are just the tip of the iceberg). People without any connection to the pursuit of liberal education often do not recognize its significance, display sufficient respect for it, or possess any understanding of its protocols. Providing them with a forum to speak on campuses trivialize education.

If what is wanted these days is informed discussion, then it would also appear that a variety of notorieties should also be blocked from campus—figures who are engaged in various public debates but who have nothing profound, learned, or substantive to contribute to those debates. For example, there is no need to invite David Duke or Richard Spencer to campus for a discussion of race; neither has any great insight into the topic. In response to those who will inevitably cry that Duke or Spencer are being censored, One Thing after Another retorts that plenty of other venues are available to them, and colleges need not waste time on their nonsense. For the same reason, we need not invite Holocaust deniers or Creationists. Students should not be presented with all manner of shoddy arguments unsupported by evidence; they need to choose from among the best.

Second, guests ought to respect their audiences by not only deploying arguments based on a thorough understanding of the topic at hand but also by avoiding gratuitous insult. There is no other way to go about persuading one’s auditors within the free market of ideas that underpins a liberal education. In this context, it is important to point out the difference between experts who express opinions that may give offense and those who express opinions offensively. For example, one may find Peter Singer’s views extremely repugnant, but he is an enormously influential ethicist, a recognized expert in his field, and a figure who is willing to engage in respectful debate. Attempts to silence him (and there have been many) are out of order; they suggest that opponents have no compelling counterarguments. On the other hand, threats and insults leveled at various minorities are inarticulate and baseless arguments that are calculated to inspire fear and anger. They appeal to emotions, not the intellect. Again, colleges should not turn away articulate and learned speakers with controversial arguments, but they have every right to ignore fatuous ideas poorly expressed.

Is this post arguing for deference to the experts? When it comes to inviting guests to speak at a campus that seeks to promote the intellectual life, yes (different rules apply, though, when it comes to free speech within the campus community—but that’s a topic for another, more complicated post).

The main idea to keep in mind is that academic freedom is a means to an end, and for that reason, it is limited. As Michael S. Roth, president of Wesleyan University, claimed at the same roundtable at the Aspen Ideas Festival where Stephen Carter also spoke,

Academic freedom is not the ability to do whatever the hell you want on campus because it’s an academic place. Academic freedom is a professional freedom. It’s about research and intellectual work. It’s not about saying whatever you want.

It is for all these reasons that Milo Yiannopoulos has no business on a college campus. He could serve no other purpose, really, than to play the part of the drunken helot. It is hard to see how Yiannopoulos is an expert on anything. His relentless humiliation of others is an integral part of his method of argument—and does little to persuade. What he seeks to do instead is provoke. Yet he is a provocateur of the worst sort; he does not seem to believe in anything—or at least he gives that impression. As Slate puts it, “You can’t treat the ideas of Milo Yiannopoulos as though they are worthy of debate, because Milo Yiannopoulos doesn’t treat them as being worthy of debate.” In other words, he displays a lack of the earnestness and sincerity that Newman found so important in his reverential approach to learning. Yiannopoulos’ “shtick” tends toward dissolving taboos and the idea of objective truth for the sake of destroying what he sees as a “leftist-PC” totalitarianism. He is free to do whatever he wants in other public venues, but a higher standard obtains at a college which seeks to promote a broad understanding of the world through the respectful exchange of facts and ideas. Otherwise, when confronted with a seemingly amoral and intellectually destructive charlatan, we in the academe might find ourselves at a loss and, like Larry Wilmore, say something that is not altogether productive intellectually. And that benefits no one.