Professor injured, students sanctioned at Middlebury College in Vermont after conservative speaker is protested

First posted November 14, 2017 4:53pm EST
Last updated June 20, 2020 5:51pm EDT

All Associated Themes:

  • Heckler’s Veto
  • Legal Action
  • Press
  • Professional Consequences
  • Protest Politics
  • Violence / Threats

Charles Murray was shouted down by student protesters during his appearance at Middlebury College on March 2, 2017. Administrators then took Murray to a video studio in the same building where he had attempted to speak and livestreamed his remarks. After Murray finished the livestream, he went to a car accompanied by Allison Stanger, a Middlebury professor; the two were attacked by a group of protesters, who began pounding and climbing on the car. Stanger went to the hospital and was diagnosed with a concussion after the incident.

Key Players

Charles Murray is an author and political scientist best-known for his 1994 book, The Bell Curve, which he co-authored with the late Richard Herrnstein, a psychologist and specialist in animal behavior. The book has been criticized ever since its publication for what many have perceived as racist overtones and empirical shortcomings. One of the book’s arguments concerns the idea that race plays a role in shaping an individual’s IQ, and that IQ is at least somewhat heritable. Since the book’s publication, its findings have been debated, critiqued, and debunked. Critics have argued that its conclusions are based on oversimplifications of science, and that “genes” for IQ are barely existent if they exist at all. Questions have also been raised whether it is appropriate to hold Murray responsible for observations that were really developed by his co-author. Murray was invited to speak at Middlebury by the American Enterprise Institute Club, a politically conservative student group.

Allison Stanger is a professor of politics and economics at Middlebury College. She said that she had planned on asking difficult questions of Murray after his speech in the auditorium but never got a chance to do so because of interruptions by protesters. She did engage in a back-and-forth with Murray after he delivered his remarks via livestream.

Laurie L. Patton is the president of Middlebury College. During her introduction of Murray prior to his speech, she condemned him, stating specifically that she would “regret it terribly” if her presence in the hall seemed like an endorsement of Murray’s beliefs. The day after the incident, Patton issued an apology to everyone who attended the event, and to Murray as well, saying that Middlebury had “failed to live up to [its] core values.” She wrote an op-ed in The Wall Street Journal three months later, titled “The Right Way to Protect Free Speech on Campus.” She described the interruptions of Murray’s speech as “disheartening,” writing, “As a community of learners, we must extend the same privileges and rights of speech to others as we would ask others to extend to us.” The op-ed provided a prescriptive list of potential methods to ensure rights for both free speech and protest, including embracing the freedom of inquiry as an educational value for all, moving beyond a false dichotomy between Free Speech and inclusiveness, and reminding students that educational institutions have a primary obligation to foster open and civil discourse.

Further details

Stanger wrote later in a Facebook post that it had been difficult to maintain the conversation with Murray when students were banging on the windows outside and pulling fire alarms in an attempt to stop the livestream.

Stanger wrote two separate op-eds, both in The New York Times. In the first, published on March 17, 2017, titled “Understanding the Angry Mob at Middlebury That Gave Me a Concussion,” she described the analyses of the situation as “incomplete.” She detailed her experience being attacked by protesters after the speech, writing, “I feared for my life.” She also stressed the need for reason, not emotions, to prevail and said she believed the student protesters were well-intentioned in their desire to support oppressed communities. In the second op-ed, titled “Middlebury, My Divided Campus,” published on April 3, 2017, Stanger compared Murray’s speaking engagement with a public Skype interview she had conducted with Edward Snowden, who leaked a trove of secret documents from the National Security Agency in 2013 and 2014. Her interview with Snowden occurred without incident, she said, and noted that Middlebury did not issue a disclaimer before that event, whereas the president of Middlebury had disassociated herself from Murray’s views while introducing him. She continued that she believes those in the political middle at Middlebury are reluctant to support free inquiry because they are afraid of being labeled as racist.

No students were suspended or expelled for their roles in the Murray protest. The Times reported that 67 students were eventually disciplined to some degree, ranging from probation to official rebukes that would go on their permanent records. Patton’s op-ed in The Wall Street Journal stated that a total of 74 students were sanctioned. The details of the sanctions were purposely left vague, due to privacy concerns. Although more than 100 students were involved in the initial protests during Murray’s speech, many could not be identified because photos of the event covered only part of the auditorium.

The Times also reported that the protesters who had rocked the car back and forth and pulled Stanger’s hair may not have been affiliated with the college but had come from off campus. The Middlebury Police Department said it did not plan on bringing criminal charges against any of the protesters who could be identified. The chief of police said it was not possible to identify some of the individuals who attacked the car and assaulted Stanger because they were wearing masks.

Immediately after the incident, Murray tweeted that the administration at Middlebury had been “exemplary” and that the students “were seriously scary.” He described the protesters as an “out-of-control mob.”

On May 3, 2017, professors from across the country signed an open letter addressed to Patton. It criticized the punitive measures taken against the students involved in the protest, arguing that the administration “sorely mishandled” the situation and that “students have a right to reasonable protest, and protest by its very nature is a challenge to an authority that refuses to listen.” The letter concluded by saying that Middlebury should be protecting the rights of the students to Free Speech, not just Murray’s rights. “To punish students and to defend Murray is to degrade the meaning of academic freedom and free speech,” it said.

Additionally, more than 40 Middlebury faculty members published a statement of principles in The Middlebury Campus on May 10. It said that “speech that justifies, naturalizes, and reinforces the positions of the privileged vis-à-vis the marginalized should be rigorously scrutinized and critiqued, and speech that challenges such opinions and prejudices should be encouraged.” The statement also endorsed the necessity of civil disobedience in defining the values and relationships that construct a community.

Following the incident at Middlebury, Murray visited Columbia University on March 23, where almost 150 faculty members signed an open letter supporting his right to speak. However, their letter also condemned him as producing work that “justifies the ongoing disenfranchisement of African Americans and other people of color, and, more recently, poor and working class white people.” They added that they supported the rights of campus student groups to listen to whatever speaker they invite to campus. Murray was able to speak despite protesters holding signs with statements like “No free speech for racists” outside the event. About 60 faculty members and students attended.

Murray appeared at Harvard University, his alma mater, on Sept. 6, under heavy security. Flyers were handed out ahead of the event that described Murray as a white nationalist and advertised a competing event titled, “White Nationalism Unchecked: Why Inviting Charles Murray Was a Mistake.” Murray did not discuss his work in The Bell Curve, but instead talked about President Donald Trump’s election and his book, Coming Apart: The State of White America 1960-2010, The Harvard Crimson reports. Midway through Murray’s talk, approximately 10 students stood up and displayed protest signs before walking quietly out of the auditorium, according to The Crimson. Murray commented that the events at Harvard were “better than Middlebury.”

In September, Addis Fouche-Channer, a Black student who had graduated from Middlebury in May 2017, denied taking part in the protest after she was accused of involvement by a campus public safety officer. The officer said that that she had been climbing on the car in which Murray and Stanger were sitting, and that he had pulled her off and identified her. Fouche-Channer went through the college’s judicial process prior to graduation and was cleared of wrongdoing, reports The Middlebury Campus. Later, she filed a formal complaint with the university, claiming she had been a victim of racial profiling. After an investigation by Middlebury’s Title IX office, a college official denied this allegation and said the college now believed Fouche-Channer was at the protest after all, contradicting its earlier decision. Fouche-Channer continued to deny that she was in attendance, reports The Campus. After news of the allegations broke, a Middlebury faculty group called “Middlebury Faculty for an Inclusive Community” published an op-ed in The Campus in support of her.


Reaction from national publications

In the wake of the incident, myriad articles were published, both defending Murray’s right to Free Speech and defending the rights of students to protest his speech.

An article by Peter Beinart in The Atlantic compared the incident to an earlier conflict involving Milo Yiannopoulos at the University of California, Berkeley. Beinart noted that Murray had been invited by a small group of students on campus, an ideological minority, but that the minority viewpoint deserved protection. Denying Murray the right to speak would set a precedent under which other conservative speakers, such as Sen. Ted Cruz (R-Texas), would not be allowed to talk, he argued. Beinart concluded that students willing to shut down Murray could also turn against figures on the political left, and that fact should cause liberals to take notice and be concerned about denying Murray’s right to speak.

A column by Richard Cohen in The Washington Post argued that the protesters used a “culturally appropriated” form of fascism by refusing to allow Murray’s speech to proceed. He pointed out that Benito Mussolini’s rise to power in Italy took the form of violent protests that silenced opponents and interfered with the opposition’s meetings.

Students sanctioned

A total of 74 students were disciplined for their roles in the protest. None were expelled. The protesters who attacked the car were apparently never definitively identified.

Murray made appearances at other universities

Murray appeared at Columbia and Harvard after the Middlebury incident. His appearance at Columbia was undisturbed except for protesters outside. Columbia faculty wrote an open letter clarifying that they did not endorse Murray’s views but did support his right to speak. At Harvard, about 10 students stood up, displayed signs, and walked out.