Letters to the Editor, Opinions

Letter: Response to ‘Free speech is not a problem on campuses’

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Tuesday, April 11, 2017

To the Editor:

I am writing to comment on Clare Steinman’s Mar. 17 piece, “Free speech is not the problem on campuses” and to correct some misinformation therein. I am a graduate of Middlebury College and Brown and have recently retired after a 42-year career in higher education. My political leanings are left/liberal. I am not sure I would characterize college students today as “coddled,” but they are certainly more insulated from certain aspects of the real world than were students in my day.

I deplore what took place at Middlebury several weeks ago. Charles Murray is a racist creep, in my opinion, and probably should not have been invited to speak at the college. But once he had been invited, and once there, he should have been granted the courtesy of being heard. In the mid-1960s several of my friends and I traveled to Hanover, New Hampshire to hear George Wallace speak at Dartmouth. We booed his more egregious statements (we were horrified that the majority of Dartmouth students in the audience cheered these same statements), but we did not heckle him off the stage nor try to prevent him from speaking, even though we found his message hateful. Those who prevented Murray from speaking at Middlebury should face consequences, especially those who took violent actions which injured a faculty member badly enough to require hospitalization. Student participants should face suspension or expulsion, and those involved in violence should be prosecuted in the courts.

Steinman asserts that “free speech and expression in the 1960s were truly threatened thanks to a limited number of outlets and a repressive political climate.” This is simply not true. Yes, there was no internet and only three major television networks, but we had access, through television, radio and the print media, to the full spectrum of political opinion from George Wallace, Strom Thurmond, Curtis LeMay and the like on the far right to H. Rap Brown, Abby Hoffman, Bobby Seales, Malcolm X and others on the left and everything in between. The unfortunate confrontation at the 1968 Democratic political convention was fully covered on television and extensively in the print media.

I believe that “free speech and expression” are far more threatened today than in the 1960s. After all, we managed to impeach former President Richard Nixon and force his resignation in 1974. President Trump, Steve Bannon and others in the current administration would like to roll back some of the press freedoms that we enjoy, but I have confidence that the Supreme Court (even with the addition of Neil Gorsuch) will not lead us down that path. Yes, the court has chipped away at some of the fundamentals of our democratic society with rulings like Citizens United, but in the end I do not see them supporting a fascist or totalitarian state. Free speech is threatened if Ray Kelly is not allowed to speak at Brown and Charles Murray is prevented from speaking at Middlebury.

Peter S. Allen MA’68 PhD’72