Some Good News for Advocates of Intellectual Freedom
Amid the rush and furor over free speech controversies at college and university campuses across the nation it’s easy to lose track of the good stories, the bright spots in the landscape where there is cause for celebration.
One such event occurred last week at Middlebury College.
Over the past several years, Middlebury has been at the center of a number of incidents in which speakers have been disrupted, disinvited, or attacked. Perhaps the most famous case in recent memory is that of Charles Murray, whose visit led to an attack by protestors in which one professor was assaulted and sent to the hospital.
Middlebury hit the news again recently when student protestors and campus administrators jointly vetoed a planned campus lecture by Ryszard Legutko, a Polish politician and member of the European Parliament.
There have been countless tellings and re-tellings of Legutko’s story, so I will not do so again here. The interesting part is not that Middlebury again offered its students palliatives over intellectual rigor. Rather, what stands out is that students at Middlebury are standing up.
Last week, six members of Middlebury's Political Science Student Advisory Committee wrote to The Middlebury Campus (a student newspaper) to argue persuasively and unflinchingly in support of intellectual freedom.
These six students expressed their dissatisfaction with the response to Legutko’s visit. They stood up for both academic freedom and peaceful protests, declaring their support for “the right of students to attend any talks or lectures they choose, just as we support the right of students to peacefully protest.”
The students praised faculty members for inviting Legutko to campus, sponsoring his guest lecture, and welcoming Legutko into the classroom. The students expressed their disappointment with Middlebury administrators who disinvited Legutko and failed to defend academic freedom.
The students conclude: "As it is our belief that academic freedom and freedom of speech constitute the foundation of liberal arts education, we urge that the Administration publicly embrace these values and take the necessary steps to demonstrate a willingness to stand by them." Their defense of academic freedom is exemplary, and deserves support and praise from all Americans.
There are real instances of courage taking place in college and university campuses across the nation. This is one small story among many. Often, we are presented with the problems, the issues, the darkness and despair. We ought to be reminded that light and hope exist too.
Indeed there are occasions for celebration and joy. I can think of few more joyful occasions than students standing up for academic freedom and intellectual diversity, even when such principles go against the popular current on campus. To make a reasoned argument in measured language based on deeply held principles — this is what student engagement should look like.
These students: Charlie Cacciatore ’20; Kyle Loveland ’20; Akhila Roy Chowdhury ’20; Owen Powers ’20; Ethan Cohen ’19; and Abbott LaPrade ’21; preserve the ideals which Middlebury College should champion—and they give hope that Middlebury will come to champion them again.