I Believe In Free Speech But…

As you have probably heard by now, Charles Murray gave a speech at Middlebury College a while back, greeted with chants of:

Hey hey, ho ho, Charles Murray has got to go

Racist, sexist anti-gay, Charles Murray go away

Brief recap: anticipating trouble, administrators relocated the event “but the dialogue was cut short by loud protesters who slammed chairs, chanted and periodically pulled fire alarms, which shut down the building’s power.” No doubt, the protesters had read The Bell Curve and found the book wanting. Sorry, actually they didn’t have to read it to know that it’s racist nonsense written by a white nationalist that sort of thing is a priori. Anyway, they ended up injuring Middlebury professor, Allison Stanger.  You can read professor Stanger’s comments here.

The aggressors were, like the fascists in Berkeley, probably not students. But let’s not focus on the violence, unfortunate though it is, what deserves attention is that anyone would try to de-platform Murray, SingerPeterson, Mac Donald from speaking at all.

At the Singer event, the manager of campus security “explained that campus security respects everyone’s rights to free speech, including protesters.”

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This seems to imply that the protestors had the right to drown out Singer’s talk! This is absurd. There is no right to drown out invited speakers, any more than there is a right to drown out local lecturers. Presumably, protestors don’t have a right to shout down Singer when he’s speaking at Princeton — where’s the relevant difference? It’s one thing to hand out pamphlets in front of Singer’s class, write letters to The Princetonian, or demonstrate before the lecture, but another to shout Singer down. Trying to prevent Singer or anyone else from lecturing at all through obstruction is infantile.

The view that the protesters, call them “de-platformers,” are justified has been pretty thoroughly refuted for more than a hundred years (see also Jason Brennan’s thoughts). Free, fair, rational inquiry and discussion is one of the best tools our civilization has. Often debates will be painful and difficult. But it is worth it. And the alternative is unstable, will be hijacked, and has a non-negligible chance of stunting serious progress. 

What then should happen to the protesters who actively shout down, interrupt, or heckle speakers? They should be expelled, put at risk of expulsion, or suspended. It is not yet clear to me yet what the optimal deterrent is, but I suspect it is one of the three above. Importantly, de-platformers should be treated in the same way the academically dishonest are treated. This is not hyperbole, these students are violating the spirit of free inquiry, the pursuit of the truth, and putting intellectual and moral progress at risk. 

In particular, the de-platformer is violating the norms of public universities in the same way that academic dishonesty violates such norms. The cheater is undercutting the spirit of a public university. It would be vastly better if public universities maintain a role of being places of learning and debate. Of course, our universities fail in that role and, of course, it may not be the only function that they possess (the other salient functions being mating grounds for students and signaling to future employers), but what matters is that public universities possess this role. The de-platformer violates this role. And they do so to the same extent that a cheater does, hence they should be treated in a similar matter.

Update: the president of Claremont McKenna appears to agree.

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