In his annual State of the University letter, President Eisgruber discussed his choice of “Speak Freely: Why Universities Must Defend Free Speech” as the Class of 2022’s Pre-read book and criticized last year's protest at Middlebury College, which prevented Charles Murray, a conservative sociologist, from speaking. Last week, in an article titled “What do you mean by 'academic freedom?’”, columnist Cy Watsky chastised President Eisgruber's allusion to this event, saying he has a "flawed perspective into what academic freedom really is."
Watsky denounced Murray, compared his speech to the recent Open Air Outreach protest at Princeton, and concluded that neither should be protected in a university. But he left out critical details about Murray’s visit and reached a conclusion with grave repercussions. President Eisgruber was right to make this allusion because the Middlebury protest showed how academic freedom is under siege.
Watsky claims that Murray is a racist who “attributes black people's mental inferiority to both environmental and genetic factors.” Despite lambasting Murray, Watsky never cited any of his works to support his claims. Such criticisms are usually derived from his writings in the book “The Bell Curve.”
Regardless of what one thinks of “The Bell Curve,” Murray wasn't scheduled to discuss it at Middlebury. The school's chapter of the American Enterprise Institute invited him to talk about “Coming Apart: The State of White America, 1960-2010,” a book that analyzes how white elites separated themselves from the white working class.
Unlike “The Bell Curve,” “Coming Apart” has received has received favorable reviews. After reading Watsky’s column, I watched several of Murray’s online lectures on the subjects that he was supposed to cover at Middlebury, and he primarily talks about the consequences of “large enclaves of really affluent people forming these large communities in which they live conspicuously different lifestyles than everybody else.”
Many in the Middlebury audience weren't even familiar with his work. Murray later said in an interview with Fox News, “Faculty members bragged about not reading my stuff.” Politico interviewed dozens of Middlebury students and faculty members. They found that in the time since Donald Trump's election, Murray's lectures had turned into “an exercise in absorbing the outrage of people who saw him as a convenient punching bag for a president they hated but couldn’t reach.”
Middlebury's protest is worthy of condemnation. It showed the exact kind of groupthink that universities ought to discourage. Students should protest speakers because they've heard their ideas and find them revolting, not because someone told them to do so. It was also wrong to direct outrage over President Trump at someone who isn't even affiliated with him.
Watsky then compared Murray to the far-right Open Air Outreach protesters. But he misses a key difference. Open Air Outreach's protest borders fighting words— obscene speech that is uttered to incite disorderly conduct — with slurs and profanity. Murray doesn't drive an audience to violence.
Watsky claims that neither should be afforded a venue to speak because they are not academic. But it isn't his — or anyone else's — job to judge what is sufficiently academic to have a venue at college. That's left to each student.
Were Watsky's standard applied to all guest speakers, students and faculty would disinvite or shout-down anyone with whom they disagreed for the purpose of keeping “our intellectual spaces open for debate.” Former Senator Rick Santorum spoke on campus last year. Watsky's standard could have easily been used to keep Santorum away for being homophobic because of his opposition to gay marriage. But that would have denied other students the opportunity to learn about mainstream conservative ideology from a past presidential candidate. If Princeton started banning speakers like Murray and Santorum, it would be no better than the conservative colleges that limit iberal speech.
Watsky concludes that we need “to stay focused on the debates that matter. We cannot use our academic spaces for the meritless ideas of people like Murray.” Individuals should decide which debates are worth having to prevent a blanket ideology from smothering inquiry. If students think there is a lecture on campus that has meritless ideas — whether it's about the creation of a cognitive elite or the detection of weakly interacting massive particles — then they don't need to attend it. But they shouldn't be an impediment to those who do want to have such discussions and have paid for a speaker.
Even if students attend a lecture on the most controversial of topics, it doesn't mean that they will automatically adopt the speaker's beliefs. Princeton students are capable of thinking for themselves. I trust that they'll reject any bigoted ideas they encounter.
Our country is more politically polarized now than it has been in decades. Colleges can play a role in ending it by allowing to students to hear provocative ideas from across the political spectrum. President Eisgruber was right to rebuke the Middlebury protest for its ideological intolerance and assign a pre-read book on the freedom of speech in universities. To answer the title of Watsky's article, “academic freedom” means the ability to communicate ideas without fear of suppression. Should someone disagree with this principle, speak freely against it.
Liam O’Connor is a sophomore from Wyoming, Del. He can be reached at email@example.com.