Tuesday, March 07, 2017

A Middlebury Protocol

The protest against Charles Murray at Middlebury College has been widely covered. As usual Robby Soave and Conor Friedersdorf are worth reading. Charles Murray's own account can be found here. Allison Stanger's account is here. I don't have anything to add. Let me emphasize this point in Murray's post:

The evidence will range from excellent to ambiguous to none. I will urge only that the inability to appropriately punish all of the guilty must not prevent appropriate punishment in cases where the evidence is clear.

Absent an adequate disciplinary response, I fear that the Middlebury episode could become an inflection point.

I agree very strongly with this. Protesting must come at a risk. In this post, I want to suggest a procedure for dealing with this sort of thing in the moment that I have gestured at before.*

Here is what I believe should have happened just before Murray and Stanger left for the secure location. Given the resolve of the protesters, it is possible that it would have taken several hours to clear the room in this manner. So it would have probably been necessary to initiate Plan B in any case, but this is what I propose should happen in the room:

1. The students should be asked to sit down (and be quiet) or leave. (This did happen.)
2. Students who remain standing or shouting should be approached and asked for student identification.
3. Those who refuse to identify themselves should be arrested for trespassing.

This should all be done individually and calmly, one protester at a time. There is no rush, no urgency, and no need to save the event. This is merely a way of ensuring that the protesters face consequences. Every encounter/arrest should be recorded on video to make it easy to identify the persons involved, for purposes of appeal cases later. Students who reach the point of being identified will already have earned a one-semester suspension and ban from campus (this should be made clear before the event, and at 1. above). Any further trouble means expulsion. (Students who get themselves arrested should be expelled.)

In line with Murray's thinking, the point of this protocol is not to punish everyone who deserves it. The first person arrested deserves punishment no more than the person who sneaks out the back before they are caught. The point is simply to give everyone an incentive to behave with decorum at college functions. If you remain disruptive after the protocol is activated, you are at risk of being expelled. You can avoid that risk simply by behaving yourself in a manner appropriate to being a student at an institution of higher learning.

PS: I hope some of the signatories to this letter will offer some public reflections. Like Berkeley Chancellor Dirks' letter, I think it exemplifies an important rhetorical error. Technically, the faculty did not call for or endorse the suppression of Murray's free speech. They merely "respectfully requested" that the event be cancelled, which is their right. But they also said that Murray "denies the basic human dignity of members of our community", which is very strong language. As a member of that community, it is difficult not think it is of paramount importance to take decisive action to stop the event. It's like saying that Murray's views are "in opposition to the basic values" of Middlebury College. What's a student to do? The faculty can plausibly defend themselves against the charge of inciting violence. But they did very definitely inform the violence that was in point fact seen.

Update: Middlebury has "punished" the students. Charles Murray is not satisfied. I am in basic agreement with Murray.

*Update: it seems that Middlebury already has the necessary regulations: "If an event or essential operation is disrupted by a group or individual, a representative of the College may request the action to stop or ask the person or group to leave the event or area and move to an approved location for protesting. Individuals or groups who disrupt an event or essential operation or fail to leave when asked are in violation of the College's policy of respect for persons and may also be in violation of the policy regarding disrespect for College officials. These violations of College policy may result in College discipline. Disruption may also result in arrest and criminal charges such as disorderly conduct or trespass."


Anonymous said...


Mostly I agree with your positions in this post about Middlebury's disrupted speech, especially that the Heckler's Veto must be opposed. But I feel a lesser sanction is more appropriate.

You wrote that students that refused to heed a second specific warning inside the lecture hall should be sanctioned with "a one-semester suspension and ban from campus (this should be made clear before the event, and at 1. above)." I don't think it serves the student body to have such a harsh sanction because it will chill dissent. Remember, college students are new at this independent life and should be encouraged to try things out and make mistakes. Instead, for a first offense, a three-month ban from attending on-campus public speaking events (as an audience member) seems more appropriate. (I would not want to restrict a student's rights to be a speaker.) That way, a student can reflect on their rude and disruptive behavior but continue their in-class studies and come back and behave well in due time as audience members. If not, make a second offense earn a steeper sanction, and so on. I suppose that a third strike and you're out (suspended entirely from the college for a semester or a year) could deter those students who would find lesser sanctions so lenient as to not have much deterrent for them.

We agree, I think, that we're only talking about disruptive protests. I feel strongly that students should be allowed, even expected, to protest peaceably, or write letters to the editor, or post to their Facebook pages whatever they wish. But anyone that censors the speaker also necessarily censors the listeners' rights to hear the speaker, which is an even more important right to protect.

I'm not sure what would happen if the authorities did begin removing people from the lecture hall, for disruptive behavior. I think the group would have walked out as soon as the authorities began doing so. But it's not clear. Instead many of them may have chosen to be arrested for civil disobedience. In that case, the college has much greater power than the government to discipline them, with sanctions as we have each proposed. I think a group such as that has a right to make an appropriately brief and vocal protest inside the lecture hall and then depart; it's the sustained disruption that is the issue.

Thomas said...

I think we mainly just agree. The sanctions were sort of off the top of my head. I think they can justly be quite severe because they are easily avoided. Anything too mild, or with warnings, will allow people to game the system, playing their "three strikes" over a school year in an coordinated action.

Anonymous said...

Middlebury has sanctioned dozens of its students for their behavior during Murray's visit.