Testing the Principle of Free Speech

A surge in hateful speech toward minorities in the Age of Trump has been met by  a pushback from angry activists, sometimes trampling the vital principle of free and open debate, writes Michael Winship.

By Michael Winship

At the risk of sounding like a geezer complaining about “these kids today,” back in my college days, when it came to points of view we were unhesitatingly exposed to literature, teachers and on-campus speakers covering the ideological waterfront.

Middlebury Professor of Political Science Allison Stanger and guest speaker Charles Murray, a fellow at the American Enterprise Institute. (Photo credit: Middlebury College)

In one instance, the student body was addressed by civil rights activist and comedian Dick Gregory, radical Irish activist Bernadette Devlin and the conservative writer and critic Russell Kirk — all in the course of a week or so.

Such variety was a common occurrence, and freewheeling, open discussion was encouraged. We didn’t always like or agree with a lot of what we heard or read — from time to time there were vehement protests — but all of it was invaluable. None of us were harmed in the making of our education.

So I was appalled other day when I read about the attempt by Republican Arkansas legislator Kim Hendren to ban from that state’s public schools all books written by the great radical historian Howard Zinn, including his seminal A People’s History of the United States, a truthful, lacerating look at the heroes and villains of America — especially the oligarchs and kleptocrats who once again have their heels on the necks of the poor and middle class.

But I also was deeply troubled by the incident at Vermont’s Middlebury College on March 2, when controversial social scientist Charles Murray was invited by a conservative student group and attempted to speak on campus. Here’s what happened, according to the Associated Press:

“Hundreds of students chanted as Murray began to speak Thursday, forcing the college to move the lecture to an undisclosed location. Murray’s talk was live-streamed to the original venue, but protesters drowned it out. The topic, he said, was the divergence of the country’s culture into a new upper class separated from mainstream America.

“Afterward, a group of protesters surrounded Murray, professor Allison Stanger and college administrator Bill Burger as they were leaving, he said. The protesters became violent, with one pulling Stanger’s hair, twisting her neck, the college said.

“After Murray and the two Middlebury staff members got into a car to leave, protesters banged on the windows, climbed onto the hood and rocked the vehicle, the college and Murray said.”

Professor Stanger, by the way, went to the ER and was subsequently diagnosed with concussion. She’s a respected political scientist at Middlebury and a fellow at the progressive New America, and was there the other night because the conservative student group had asked her to provide a counterpoint to Murray’s speech, to interview him from the stage after his prepared remarks. She had prepared some tough, challenging questions.

Odious Opinions

Many of Charles Murray’s opinions are indeed odious and his research highly questionable, He was co-author of The Bell Curve, a notorious book that seemed to link race and IQ. He describes himself as a libertarian, but the Southern Poverty Law Center (SPLC) calls him a white nationalist and reports:

Martin Luther King Jr. memorial in Washington, DC. (Photo credit: Robert Parry)

“According to Murray, the relative differences between the white and black populations of the United States, as well as those between men and women, have nothing to do with discrimination or historical and structural disadvantages, but rather stem from genetic differences between the groups… Murray’s attempts to link social inequality to genes are based on the work of explicitly racist scientists.”

At the beginning of Murray’s attempt to speak at Middlebury, students turned their backs to him and chanted in protest. I probably would have done the same. But to not let him speak and to allow the protests to lead to violence is inexcusable.

I realize that this raises all sorts of questions about freedom of speech and academic liberty, the nature of dissent and when and if political violence is ever justified, but looking at what happened coolly — and admittedly, from a distance — it seems clear that this went far beyond the boundaries of civil discourse that especially today must be defended against the barbarians who already have run roughshod, pushing through the gates and seizing the reins of power and governance.

Professor Stanger said it best herself. She wrote:

“To people who wish to spin this story as one about what’s wrong with elite colleges and universities, you are mistaken. Please instead consider this as a metaphor for what is wrong with our country, and on that, Charles Murray and I would agree. This was the saddest day of my life. We have got to do better by those who feel and are marginalized. Our 230-year constitutional democracy depends on it, especially when our current President is blind to the evils he has unleashed. We must all realize the precious inheritance we have as fellow Americans and defend the Constitution against all its enemies, both foreign and domestic. That is why I do not regret my involvement in the event with Dr. Murray.”

And then she quoted James Baldwin: “Not everything that is faced can be changed, but nothing can be changed until it is faced.”

I can be as guilty as the next person about tuning out and trying to ignore the voice of someone with whom I vehemently disagree. I know, too, that this indeed is a time to speak out against the ignorance and despotism sweeping our nation. Further, I realize that the religious, racial and homophobic hate crimes that have been on the upswing since Donald Trump’s candidacy and election — and increased in 2016 for the second year in a row according to the Southern Poverty Law Center — far exceed in numbers and intensity any violence or brutishness that has occurred on college campuses. No question that they’re more frightening and dangerous.

But, in the words of Andrew Sullivan, “Universities are the sanctuary cities of reason. If reason must be subordinate to ideology even there, our experiment in self-government is over.”

Two sides of the same coin: whether the Trump White House or those who would physically attack a college professor. Their unthinking, unyielding enslavement to a single viewpoint is fatal.

Ignorance begets ignorance and hate begets hate. And like a virus, each can infect without regard to race, gender, creed or political perspective. At a time when those in charge are fueling a pandemic of intolerance we must make sure not to succumb ourselves.

Michael Winship is the Emmy Award-winning senior writer of Moyers & Company and BillMoyers.com. Follow him on Twitter at @MichaelWinship. [This article originally appeared at http://billmoyers.com/story/free-speech-ends-ignorance-begins/]

15 comments for “Testing the Principle of Free Speech

  1. Stiv
    March 15, 2017 at 15:54

    Without knowing too much about Middlebury, all I have to go on is the “Milo incident” here at UC Berkeley.

    I don’t agree that shutting down the Milo incident is covered by “free speech”. Essentially, he is yelling “fire” in a moviehouse. I haven’t heard any coherent “message” from that guy other than bombastic, hate filled, self indulgent garbage. He’s essentially a bad comedy act. People are injured by his actions and they are due redress. But he’s been exposed now ( self imposed ), so onward towards his self destruction.

  2. John
    March 15, 2017 at 14:04

    Great comments all. It is good to read something good, and better to read the critical thinking comments afterwords.

  3. Paul Haeder
    March 14, 2017 at 22:16

    Ahh, the Southern Poverty Center —

    never a word about apartheid Israel:



    However, I too have been a campus radical, and still am radical on the left of left — shifting baselines in America make Nixon a liberal compared to Clinton x 2 or Obama. I have fought the Admin Class as an adjunct faculty in Texas, New Mexico, Washington and Oregon, to name a few states. Each administration I have worked under exploited adjuncts to the hilt, adopted neo-liberalism before it was a buzzword, and created more and more hurdles against students — not lobbying for more state support of colleges and hiking tuition, cutting good classes, and creating Draconian measures to make students fight for the right for free speech and protest on campus.

    So, we have a campus paying how much for these speakers, and why in hell aren’t we in the 20th century at these campuses demanding speakers on all sides of the political spectrum to debate their controversial topics. For Professor Stranger to lament these terrible Trump Times is to show her ignorance, myopia, her faux progressivism, or what have you. This is a country that has destroyed free thinkers on campuses and in the media — leftists especially. We are bombing countries vis-a-vis the Democratic Military Industrial Complex, and we are abhorrent on many levels globally for our polities of militarism and economic warfare. Truimp is Trump because of the so-called liberal establishment, Hollywood, Big Finance, Wall Street, the thugs of parasitic capitalism, and the work of economic hitmen.

    Students and protesters going after a [person deemed racist — again, how much to pay for him to hit campus, and is campus the best place for his line of BS — is the pattern of America losing in all chambers of the horror show the ability of its citizens to think critically and to call an elite spade a rotten and undeserving spade. The fact people rebel now, well, this is such a punishment, follow-the-rules, a million laws and taxes country, one where the police rule and the arbiters of pain in FIRE — finance, insurance, real estate — hold sway over youth’s futures.

    Howard Zinn’s book being banned or discontinued to be used in K12 schools was also part of the American Federation of Teachers hit on Mr. Zinn’s work,


    So what is the new normal for angry and girdled students?

    Ahh, the American Library Association will help add to the list of banned books we in so-called freest country in the world America —

    Yes, pulled hair and minor concussion is bad, but I have had a hell of a lot worse, plus days in jail, protesting on campuses and in the streets. I wonder how concerned we have to be with this act of acting up and mob rage when we are USA Murder, Inc., each nanosecond of the day.

    The work of Murray is a vast intellectual wasteland, and he should be speaking at the US Chamber of Commerce or ALEC for those big hefty fees.

    • Eddie
      March 19, 2017 at 12:13

      @PH — Good response & links. Also, an anonymous ‘thanks’ for your past protests, fighting the ‘good fight’.

  4. March 14, 2017 at 20:22

    *sigh* what a maroon…
    A. BESIDES having the principle of free speech explained to you for the umpteenth time, you still don’t like it, so you reject it… great, that shows YOU are the fool, NOT the rest of us who believe in that bedrock principle… free speech is INFINITELY more valuable -and useful- than your sad, sad feels…
    B. not only willfully ignorant, BUT astoundingly dense: you have NO RECOURSE when your idiotic ‘principle’ of i-get-to-do-what-i-want-and-call-it-heroic runs smack dab into ANOTHER cohort who do the same to you… do you fucking think this shit through ? ? ?
    …and -sorry- really and truly, it shows that conservatards are apparently MUCH MORE respectful of YOUR stupid free speech, than libtards are of them… otherwise, they would be crashing all your little pity parties and making your lives miserable… and yet, they do not…
    hmmm, who is the more moral, principled cohort… hmmmm
    C. your ‘moral’ position is indefensible; mine is unassailable… i allow everyone to speak everything; you only want to allow your peeps to peep pre-approved, pre-digested, pabulum…
    so sorry you have no real concept of what it means to be free…
    for the billionth time:
    you have the right to NOT be assaulted,
    you do NOT have the right to NOT be insulted…
    suck it up, buttercup…

  5. Jay
    March 14, 2017 at 20:00

    Allison Stanger of Middlebury College seems to be under the mis-apprehension that “freedom of speech” means freedom from disrespect. In this, her understanding of freedom of speech is about at the Sarah Palin level.

    She hosted a nativist at Middlebury, and she pretended in the NY Times that Murray is not a white nationalist, giving no examples of Murray not being so: https://www.nytimes.com/interactive/projects/cp/weddings/165-years-of-wedding-announcements/jewelle-taylor-james-gibbs

    Who paid for Murray to speak at Middlebury? Did the political science department spend its own money?

    Well, at least Winship isn’t pushing the Russian hacking claims as he and Moyers have been doing. Can’t imagine CN would publish that essay.

  6. MJD
    March 14, 2017 at 19:19

    The reaction of activists is not censorship. All of those alt-right folks,etc., were allowed to say what they wanted to say and were never charged or jailed for it. Free speech also includes the right to vehemently disagree and not allow promotion of heinous views through the various institutions they may be associated with.

    • Tannenhouser
      March 15, 2017 at 20:54

      Sorry….. to claim ‘free speech’ , while simultaneously denying another theirs reeks of intellectual dishonesty your best move… the win win move would have been to fill the room and then turn your backs to him while he spoke. At least then it wouldn’t have been a form of censorship.

  7. Josh Stern
    March 14, 2017 at 16:06

    On the topic of pushback and propaganda initiatives – I wish to alert Consortium News readers/writers to censorship directed at this site and others, and to suggest that the root origin of the censorship is CIA propaganda that has historically influenced the MSM to always tell a CIA-allowed narrative and avoid serious discussion of CIA crime. Harvard University Library is the latest establishment bastion to endorse a blacklist of “fake news” sites including Consortium News. http://guides.library.harvard.edu/fake I follow many Indy News sites, and basically all of them that routinely criticize the CIA have made it onto this list of “fake news” – especially if they have been active in documenting CIA influence on corrupting MSM. Please consider writing notes of protest to Harvard Library and the Opensources.co site that is putting together the “fake news” list of CIA critics (camouflaged with some other factors like supporting non FDA-expensed ingestibles, etc.). I will tweet more details I find @misc_CIA_victim

    • Zachary Smith
      March 14, 2017 at 16:56

      Down at the right-hand corner of your link page was another link – to a list.

      “False, Misleading, Clickbait-y, and Satirical “News” Sources”

      Naturally I checked for Consortium News first thing, and was rather surprised to learn that this site was one of the very few getting a “credible” ranking.

      There were an awful lot of places on that list, and I’d never heard of the vast majority of them. But of the few I did recognize:

      dailykos.com – political – clickbait – unreliable

      Recalling the Princess Bride (It just so happens that your friend here is only mostly dead) I’ve seen the Kos site as mostly unreliable in recent years, especially since the site owner assumed dictatorial powers. In times past I ran into some really neat stuff there, but admittedly not recently. And it hasn’t been bookmarked on my computer for nearly 2 years.

      nationalreview.com – unknown

      This tells me that the list-maker is simply avoiding trouble.

      SurvivalBlog.com – unknown

      Some free advice for the list-maker now. Survivalblog is a very mixed package which I’d rate as 95% batshit crazy and the rest some really valuable & practical advice. It does take some care by the reader to distinguish between the two, especially since everybody comes in with their own personal biases.

  8. Josh Stern
    March 14, 2017 at 16:00

    Strongly agree with Michael Winship. In the case of the generic racial theories, one can also do more to combat racism and to increase englightenment by introducing both historical and philosophical context to the discussion. Genetic theories of racial differences are not necessarily false. However, one can show that historically they have invariably proved to be a) contingently false and b) used in the service of racial oppression and sometimes heinous crimes. So it is entirely rational to take a very skeptical stance towards them – not because they might be true and hurt someone’s feelings, as some pundits believe, but rather because of their poor foundation and track record and social misuse in the past. Helping people to see that reality and those distinctions does a lot more good in the present than shouting someone down.

  9. Zachary Smith
    March 14, 2017 at 15:15

    I have some very real problems with this essay, and with that in mind I want to cut/paste an extensive excerpt from an essay Mr. Winship wrote back in 2011.

    Among them: intolerant… lie… pathetic… radical… sick… steal… traitors. Gingrich and his allies deliberately set out to employ toxic language against their opponents, and are still doing it. They will say anything to get a vote, especially now that the angriest and most irrational so often make up a majority of those who bother to go to the polls. This kind of talk is part and parcel of their strategy, and no matter what motivated the Tucson killings, it needs to stop.

    Their lock and load rhetoric is reinforced by the rambling ranks of those who go on the Internet to spout any conspiracy theory, distortion of history or outright lie that helps them make it through the night. Add, too, the men and women of radio and television, the Limbaugh’s, Beck’s, and their ilk who use the airwaves as a cudgel, battering viewers and listeners with the certainty of their illogic, their thinly veiled messages of bigotry and meretricious embrace of Constitution, religion, flag and family.

    All of them will huff and puff that this is an isolated incident by a madman that cannot be blamed on their bombast and bluster. But let’s call it out for what it is, let’s debate what in our gut we know to be true: even if it was not their intent, it’s likely the words of the right on radio and TV and in the books they publish spurred on the man who killed two and wounded six in a Knoxville, Kentucky, church in July 2008, and the murderer of George Tiller, one of the few doctors in America who still performed late-term abortions for women with problem pregnancies whose health was at stake from life-threatening complications, or whose infants would be born dead or dying. Their invective, whether inadvertently or not, has encouraged the vandalism and threats faced by so many of our candidates and elected officials, including the now desperately wounded Congresswoman Giffords. Her shooting, and the death and wounding of so many who came to meet with her are just the latest example of ideologically-motivated bloodshed.

    “Let me say one thing,” said Clarence Dupnik, sheriff of Pima County, Arizona, where the shootings took place, “because people tend to pooh-pooh this business about all the vitriol that we hear inflaming the American public by people who make a living off of doing that. That may be free speech, but it’s not without consequences.” He singled out radio and TV and said, “When you look at unbalanced people, how they respond to the vitriol that comes out of certain mouths about tearing down the government, the anger, the hatred, the bigotry that goes on in this country is getting to be outrageous.” An elected Democrat, he was immediately attacked by Republicans and the right, his statements dismissed as partisan and inappropriate.

    I suspect Mr. Winship has some very special blinders which enable him -personally – to make the fine distinction between “free speech” and “hate speech”. One wonders precisely where he would draw the line between them.

    Moving the speaker to another location was a good idea on the part of the College. They could have also uploaded it to youtube if they thought Murray’s utterances had such merit.

    The people who committed physical assault certainly ought to be prosecuted, and possibly expelled as well if they were students.

    Personally I think the author has wrapped his own time as a university student in a golden haze. At least till now my own personal memories have included all the warts as well.

  10. Tom Welsh
    March 14, 2017 at 15:12

    It seems to me that the most important principle of all is that of intellectual integrity: simple old-fashioned honesty. Are we prepared to accept the truth, whether we like it or not, and cope with it? Or do we prefer to emulate the Three Wise Monkeys and shut our eyes and ears to anything we consider unpleasant? The survival values of the two strategies are likely to be very different.

    You write that “Many of Charles Murray’s opinions are indeed odious and his research highly questionable”. Surely it would be more accurate to write that “There are many of Charles Murray’s opinions that I do not like” and that “Many people consider his research highly questionable”.

    By phrasing your judgments as if they were objective facts, you lend them an air of certainty that is surely inappropriate for value judgments.

  11. john wilson
    March 14, 2017 at 15:11

    The students at university are beginning to sound like the junior anti sex league featured in George Orwell’s 1984! People who want power and think that only they should have a voice usually turn to banning books and free speech. Soon these people will be burning books and rounding up anyone who is, or seems to be a dissenter. Already we are seeing the “fake news” statement which claims that everything that’s not from the establishment or the main stream media is somehow subversive. Further, anyone even hinting that good relations with the Russians is no bad thing is treasonous. Thank God for Wiki leaks and Snowden who have shown us that the establishment is a cabal of criminals.

  12. Lois Gagnon
    March 14, 2017 at 14:39

    The puppet masters who have the real power are only too happy to see the violence ratcheted up between sides. They thrive on chaos. That’s why the world is being thrown into chaos at every level. We must refuse to succumb.

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