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Oppenheim: Disruption At Middlebury

The President of Middlebury College, Laurie Patton, is disappointed, and for good reason.

About  400 students shouted down Charles Murray, the co-author of an explosive 1994 book called “The Bell Curve”, which argued blacks are intellectually inferior to whites because of genetics.

When Murray began speaking, the protesters started shouting and turned their backs. So Murray was brought to a closed room and interviewed by a political science professor on a live video stream, which was in turn drowned out by the noise of the protesters.

Things turned uglier when some masked protestors, possibly outside agitators, started pushing and shoving and the professor ended up going to the hospital with a neck injury.

It reminded me of my senior year at Brown University in 1981.

William Casey, Ronald Reagan’s CIA director, was invited to speak but by the time he showed up, there was a vigorous protest going on outside the lecture hall.

I was inside, sitting in the balcony, as Casey took the microphone and 13 students stood up and began reciting the Lewis Carroll poem, Jabberwocky.

The poem is filled with imaginative made-up words, and the protesters meant to deliver a sharp rebuke to Mr. Casey by implying that his words were essentially nonsense.

Three minutes later, the protestors - who became known as the Jabberwocky 13 - sat down – and were actually booed by the audience.

What ensued was intense discussion about free speech, and what kind of protest is appropriate, and what is not.

Now, some conservatives are pouncing on the Middlebury story as a perfect example of liberal intolerance. But I think the Middlebury protestors had a right, maybe even an obligation, to make it clear they don’t agree with Charles Murray.

And you can make the case that the college should not condone speakers who make provocative intellectual arguments for racial supremacy.

But here’s the hard thing. Once someone is invited, and has the stage, free speech requires us to keep our seat and listen. It’s a critical part of a functioning democracy - because when people are not allowed to speak, even when their words are obnoxious or offensive, then we cease to have free speech at all.

Keith Oppenheim, Associate Professor in Broadcast Media Production at Champlain College, has been with the college since 2014. Prior to that, he coordinated the broadcasting program at Grand Valley State University in Allendale, Michigan (near Grand Rapids). Keith was a correspondent for CNN for 11 years and worked as a television news reporter in Providence, Scranton, Sacramento and Detroit. He produces documentaries, and his latest project, Noyana - Singing at the end of life, tells the story of a Vermont choir that sings to hospice patients.
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