A Letter to the Well-Intentioned Liberal Professor

This letter was written addressing a free speech bill that faculty attempted to pass in response to the Charles Murray protest. It was sent directly to the offending faculty. An excerpt was then published on the Middlebury Campus, which received a public reply from a professor on leave on April 26th. As the author, I’ve chosen to publish the full version for wider circulation.

On Thursday night, I did not expect to spend the rest of the evening and the next day writing the following response. But when the motion for free expression that was reportedly presented at a faculty meeting reached my desk, it became more and more apparent that that was exactly what would happen. There are many issues that need redress. As believers in civic discourse, I expect you to dedicate the time to read this letter. I am no representative of some larger body or faction; rather, I am writing to you as a single dissenter who wishes nothing more than to shift your perspective.

Firstly, I’d like to commend you. Your collective affirmation of free expression is admirable.

Free speech is critically important to our community. Indeed, it is vital to the functioning of a healthy civil society. Censorship is the recipe of authoritarianism. That has been clearly illustrated throughout history. From the Nazis’ book-burning to Mao Zedong’s Anti-Rightist Campaign, the worst of the human impulse is the one that advocates for the prohibition of free expression. There is a reason that free expression is enshrined in our institutions. The Framers and the Founders sought to protect free speech in all its forms, from the press to the assembly, but their legacies were far from perfect. American history is best described as the struggle for a fuller and better realization of the founding ideals than the white, upper-class men of the Critical Period had. Free speech is no exception to that history. When we consider free speech, we must note that the arena of public discourse is not equally available to every single human being. It never has been. Some are systemically locked out. Others are self-censored, as a means to cope with collective trauma and oppression.

A cursory glance in textbooks yields plenty of examples of this phenomenon of structurally-imposed silence. Free speech was enshrined in the Constitution, but was only ever allowed on the terms of the people in power. Native Americans could not discuss their own fate because they were not part of white society, so white society decided the laws that segregated them to reservations. Slaves could not challenge slave-holders because they weren’t “eloquent,” or able to speak in the language of their oppressors. Women were barred from speaking up by the cult of domesticity. Queer people were shackled under threat of discrimination that pervaded all levels of society.

Stonewall Inn, the site of one of the greatest examples of the seizure of free speech.

Every single one of these examples had to push themselves into the public arena by force. Because they felt unheard, Native Americans organized separatist movements. Slaves rose up under Nat Turner, and their descendants stopped traffic and interrupted people’s daily lives by marching in streets, across bridges. They wrote letters from Birmingham Jail to white ministers that told them they were being divisive. Women like Alice Paul chained themselves to the White House gates to fight for their voice to be heard. Queer people rioted outside the Stonewall Inn. Every single one of these efforts from marginalized groups were aimed at accessing the arena of public discourse, at seizing a more inclusive free speech.

As Dr. King pointed out, “a riot is the language of the unheard.”

In every case, the tactics of marginalized people were condemned. They faced backlash from those in power. Perhaps, they were “thugs.” Or a “mob.” Such rhetoric was lobbed at them to not only suppress their free speech, but keep them from possessing it in the first place, because every riot and every protest they organized was an attempt at exactly that goal — being heard.

Systemically-silencing mechanisms still infest society now. Citizenship grants you the capacity to speak up, because lacking citizenship is equivalent to being under threat of deportation, detainment, nativism. You’re not going to speak up if your parents are on the line; you’re not going to protest, exercising your right to free assembly, if arrest may mean deportation. A college degree gives you access to the public forum; not having a college degree ensures you’re barred from the tools and means to speak up in that arena. A high wage allows you the time to devote to speaking up; not having one ensures your voice remains unheard because you’re too busy sweating in factories and fast food restaurants owned by richer, more leisurely people who can devote their time to penning essays and vacations.

Where I grew up, these barriers to free speech were self-evident. My lived experience, as a first-generation student and someone of low socioeconomic background, proves the validity of structurally-imposed silencing of free speech. As I described in the Middlebury Campus last year:

“Disadvantage shapes every opportunity, thought and desire. While privileged students can afford SAT prep books, poorer ones may not even know what those three letters stand for. While privileged students can debate what college to go to, poorer ones are oftentimes unsure about going to college — or simply unable to do so. I am acquainted with certain types of disadvantages. My middle school was a tiny spot in the middle of the Mojave wasteland, a place where — two years after my family moved out — a war between Bloods and Crips erupted. Thinking about “college,” a term so distant and irrelevant that it bore absolutely no meaning, was unheard of. All conversations were combative, a show of masculinity or cruelty, often interlaced with homophobic and racist slurs. Most of my friends were trapped, unable to imagine a reality outside of this de facto oppression that perpetuated itself with each successive generation.”

All of these people in my life were systemically barred from free speech. Whereas others might have access to the upper class, others can’t even find the path to follow into assimilation or social mobility. They’re too busy in the streets, fighting and dying, struggling against one another or working in the fast food industry. Some, like me, get out. Through a combination of privileges like supportive families or just good karma, we learn what the SATs are. We learn how admissions works. We send an application to a school we never heard of in a state we’ve never been, on the other side of the country. We meet people of a higher class than we’ve ever met before. The Nalgene goes from just a word in a music video to an actual object; the Canada Goose goes from an amusing-sounding phrase to a brand representing wealth and privilege we don’t have. It becomes the symbol of the people who speak up in class, who chat to their professors after class, who seem to actually have something in common to bond over with their teachers. It becomes one of the many aspects of the dominant, upper-class culture we confront as marginalized people that makes us stay silent.

When I entered college, I hoped to be heard. Admissions had seen fit to admit me, so I hoped I would be a good fit. My entire life in the United States has been spent in the gutter, so I wondered what the strange world known as college might even be like. Everyone was rich. Everyone I spoke to seemed to have different mannerisms and life experiences that made it so hard to connect with anyone. They talked about spring breaks; they talked about febmesters. They owned cars, even though they were just college students. My parents don’t even own a car. Every single small moment, every single assumption, shut me out further. It was apparent that public discourse was not a level playing field. That was confirmed, finally, when I met a professor who was also from a similar background. She was a first-generation student, who wasn’t weaned in the halls of academia. She was the perfect image of the professor. It was a curated persona. She said she has panic attacks every single time she needs to talk to her colleagues, because the vast majority of academics know nothing about disadvantage at a personal level. They know nothing about the structurally-imposed silence we face as marginalized students. That professor’s voice, amplified more than most, was still systemically silenced in the college community around all of us.

Structurally-imposed silence is any and all barriers that prevent marginalized voices from being heard. It is the system of power that privileges some voices over others, and ensures that the arena of public discourse remains an arena with limited doors, locks, and keys. Some people are closer to the doors than others. While public discourse was not completely available to me, I did not feel many of the systems of power that work to silence other, more marginalized people on campus. Whiteness ensures I remain comfortable in my skin here. Further, I am a citizen who is not currently threatened by ICE raids that could lead to long nights crying on a phone instead of doing homework. Structurally-imposed silence, like everything else, is the result of intersectional oppressive systems that hurt some much more than others. Structurally-imposed silence is the greatest threat to free speech, and it must be dismantled in order for us to have a fully free expression. That has been the objective of many riots throughout our history, but also in the college environment.

Upon arriving in college, I hoped to find a deeper and richer understanding of free speech that included systemically-imposed silence. That hope informed my understanding of the Charles Murray incident. Marginalized students were rising up in fury at what they perceived to be a white supremacist invited to campus. At the event I hosted to bring the different factions into dialogue, “Free Speech, Hate Speech: A Debate,” one of the participants in the protests articulated his reasons for fighting for their free speech in the form of a shut-down. They had never attended a protest before. The platform provided to Charles Murray was a final straw that broke the camel’s back. Their experience at Middlebury had been a series of affronts. Their speech had been silenced systemically and structurally, one insensitive comment and assumption after another, and their participation was a response to being locked out of the public arena in their classes, forums, and the community at large. Charles Murray illustrated that their concerns, their lived experiences, were simply not recognized by their community as valid. Murray was the man who, upon his previous visit, argued that these students did not deserve to be at the elite institution of Middlebury. He was the man whose argument had the impact of challenging marginalized students’ very own intelligence, their experience of overcoming systemically-imposed silence to reach the high halls of academia.

The Charles Murray protest. (March 2nd, Middlebury College)

In many ways, the label “white supremacist” was a simplification of the way Murray compounded the barriers to free expression present on our campus already. No wonder he caused such fury, especially in the context of students who already felt unheard. Murray already possessed the capacity to publish books, to speak elsewhere. He didn’t face systemically-imposed silence to his free speech in broader society. Shutting down Murray was a method to seize free speech for the marginalized members of our community, rather than just “giving” it to someone who already possessed it. It was not censorship, because free speech does not include the positive right to speaking anywhere and everywhere. If I ask Harvard for a platform, they are not required to provide it to me, for example. Rather, the shut-down was a method to realize a fuller free speech.

In that light, the response of many marginalized students to Charles Murray was the equivalent of the many fights for freedom of expression in the past. The protesters were the Native Americans that organized separatist movements; they were the slaves that rose up with Nat Turner. They were the Civil Rights marchers, the freedom riders, who crossed borders for justice. They were Alice Paul chaining themselves to the White House. They were the queer people who rioted at Stonewall and birthed the gay rights movement. They were fighting for their free speech.

Some faculty members gave me hope that this was understood. They fought hard alongside the protesters for Charles Murray to not be platformed, so that the systemically-imposed silence upon the marginalized members of our community did not become even greater than it already is. At Columbia University, a resolution was passed that accepted that any speaker could come to campus. But, free speech protections also ensured that students had the right to shut down that speaker as part of their own free expression. The exact language is copied below:

“We believe strongly in the right of student groups to invite speakers of their choice to campus. But by the same token, those who find those speakers’ views abhorrent have an equal right to express their disagreement in a vigorous, although non-violent, manner. Efforts to vanquish disturbance from our campus mirror similar efforts to impose civility norms on academic inquiry and debate. In our view, one of the primary aims and methods of a liberal arts education is to disturb well-settled beliefs, opinions, and notions of truth through reasoned and rigorous interrogation.”

At Middlebury, a faction of people in support of “free speech” also emerged. At first, I was hopeful that they would understand and include systemically-imposed silence in their activism. Many of them were known previously to be friends of marginalized students, so that expectation was not unfounded. Many of them had cheered when I delivered a speech following President Trump’s Muslim Ban. There, I argued that “if you stand on the sidelines because we are divisive, you are in the way.You’re on the wrong side of history. You are guilty.” Perhaps they would understand that any battle for free speech must not condemn the free speech of those that are historically oppressed and whose voices are locked out of community public discourse. Shut-downs of speakers are an exercise of freedom of expression, and bricks in the wall of a proud history of activism among many marginalized groups that decorate the annals of our American history, the many fights to realize a better and fuller understanding of the founding ideals.

Surely faculty in support of free speech would not be blind to the lessons of history. Surely faculty in support of free speech would not condemn nonviolent tactics. Surely faculty in support of free speech would not repeat the mistakes of people in power that stood in the way of true liberty at every turn, in every movement.

But that was exactly what happened. Some professors called nonviolent protests a “mob,” and argued that they were “thugs,” consciously employing racially-charged language. Instead of focusing on the actual concerns of marginalized students, these professors critiqued the usage of the term “white supremacist.” One even dismissed the entire Broken Inquiry letter, written in the heat of midterms, on the grounds that it still referred to Murray as a “supremacist.” That professor, and many of their colleagues in the “free speech” faction, did not acknowledge that the term is a simplification of a much deeper and nuanced problem — that of systemically-imposed silence. They did nothing to acknowledge the actual lived experiences that marginalized students articulated to argue for their free speech.

Some professors even had the gall to say that these protests were divisive, and we didn’t need the Left to be split in this day and age. That argument was especially dangerous. It implied that oppressed people don’t need to be heard at all. Instead, they should sit back and let resistance happen on the terms of those least affected. If the people most affected by Trump are crying for change, to be heard, maybe those least affected should listen and not stand on pedestals and preach.

From Birmingham Jail, Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. faced much of the same conflict as we now do in the aftermath of Charles Murray. Now, instead of the white moderate, we face the well-intentioned liberal professor. The white ministers have become the “free speech” faculty. History is repeated. To parody Dr. King’s prescient words, I am gravely disappointed with the well-intentioned liberal professor. I have almost reached the regrettable conclusion that the marginalized student’s great stumbling block in his stride toward freedom is not the white nationalist or supremacist, but the well-intentioned liberal professor, who is more devoted to “order” than to justice, who prefers a negative peace which is the absence of tension to a positive peace which is the presence of justice; who constantly says: “I agree with the goal you seek, but I cannot agree with your methods of direct action”; who paternalistically believes he can set the terms for a marginalized person’s free speech. Those are exactly the arguments being lobbed at us in the name of “free speech.” We should not be disruptive, because that is not civil. We should not rise up at every slight, because that disunites us in the face of Trump. We should not shut down speakers, because that method is not an acceptable form of free speech.

To the faculty in support of “free speech” that does not include protection of shut-downs and other methods of expression, I reiterate: if you stand on the sidelines, or shame us for our tactics, you are in the way. You are on the wrong side of history. You are guilty.

Two weeks ago, many of you attended “Free Speech, Hate Speech: A Debate,” in which students representing the Charles Murray shut-down articulated that marginalized people’s free speech is impeded by the voices that question their very lived experiences. One audience member’s experience, citing the systemically-imposed silence that threatens his free speech, has already been described above. Despite the presence of a few of the motion’s authors during the debate, the audience member’s concerns are not mentioned in the bill. In fact, self-censorship as a barrier to free speech is not mentioned in the motion at all. The only acknowledgment of marginalized experiences is confined to a single, concessionary sentence: “we recognize the uneven burden that freedom of speech can impose on underrepresented minorities.”

In many ways, your rhetorical prowess in the motion for free expression contains a lot of statements I agree completely with. The College is and should be committed to free inquiry, and should thus guarantee “the broadest possible latitude to speak, write, challenge, and learn.” However, that should include shut-downs and disruptive protest. Those, as methods to break the shackles of systemically-imposed silence, are also a part of a broad latitude of expression available to community members. The College should not “shield individuals from ideas and opinions,” but students as members of the community have the right to express themselves through the broadest latitude. A shut-down is not a College action, but the free speech of individuals manifested in a disruptive way. I agree completely. “Concerns about civility and mutual respect can never be used as a justification for closing off discussion of ideas,” including in the form of passionate disruptions. That does not violate the following paragraph, which expresses that expression that is illegal, defamatory, or constitute a genuine threat or harassment, cannot be tolerated. A shut-down does none of that. Disruption is not illegal; in fact, it is part of the realization of the founding ideals. Disruption is not necessarily defamatory. It is far more likely that the accusation of defamation is used as a means to wrest the keys to the doors of public discourse away from marginalized students, as it could very well be in stating that Charles Murray was not a supremacist.

Note, non-violent disruption is not harassment. In fact, let’s take a look at what the College deems harassment. For those that attended the debate, this is the same argument that Patrick McElravey pursued in his oratory. “Harassment is defined as verbal, written, visual, or physical conduct” that is predicated on a person’s identity. That includes “race, creed, color,” as well as a slew of other potential marginalizations. The mere fact that Charles Murray was not indicted based on this potential violation of harassment — in fact, the idea that Murray violated the College’s anti-harassment policy was not at all discussed until the aftermath — is indicative of two points. The first is that the power of interpretation is only in the hands of those who already possess free speech — the administrators, the faculty. The second is that the current anti-harassment policy does not contain any clause that includes guests of the College. Instead, the policy applies only to “faculty, staff, students, and applicants.” In reality, the anti-harassment policy sets the terms for our free speech as a community. The motion for free expression includes those community standards, but does nothing to make the standards apply across the board.

Your motion’s rationale also contains rhetoric I agree with. “The power to silence dissent — even repugnant, stale, and wrong-headed dissent — runs the risk of reducing knowledge to dogma,” you state. That is a completely accurate statement. It is for precisely that reason that disruptive protest must be protected. Let’s break down the meaning of the above sentence. Dissent indicates, by definition, opposition to the dominant narrative. Disruptive protest occurs only where voices are not heard; it is always a reaction to systemically-imposed silence. If your voice is not heard, your opinion is not included in the dominant narrative. When you argue that the power to silence dissent is dangerous and against our values, you must logically mean that the power to stop disruptive dissent is against our values. After all, disruptive protest is repugnant to civility. It may even be wrong-headed. Somehow, I find it very unlikely that your motion means the protection of disruptive protest.

By this point, I hope it is evident that your motion for free expression needs amendment.

First, the motion for free expression must include protection of disruptive protest. By implementing that change, your motion would expand to a more inclusive framework of free speech. It would recognize the realities of systemically-imposed silence and its role in preventing marginalized people on campus from exercising their free speech. It would hand over keys to the arena of public discourse. Given our shared ideals of free speech, this should be an agreeable change in the interest of free speech. This includes the removal of explicitly anti-protest language, such as “may not obstruct” in the corollary paragraph of the motion. After all, that is also free speech, and includes in the “freedom of others to express views they reject” at the end of the same sentence.

Second, the motion must include an amendment to the anti-harassment policy to include guests. If we are to have an even playing field of free speech, in which the effect of systemically-imposed silence is mitigated to the furthest extent possible in the capacity of the College, guests must be included in the umbrella of what is permitted as discourse. Given the fact that the motion includes the language of “genuine threat or harassment,” implicitly touching upon the policy, amendment to the anti-harassment policy is certainly in line with the motion.

Third, tokenism must be removed. While the rhetoric of the motion is worthy, there are instances that do nothing but engage in the same tactics that systems of power always do to prevent marginalized people from accessing free speech. The final paragraph of the motion’s rationale states that “a historically black university” implemented this policy. That may be true. However, by including that information, the motion engages in the same sort of logic as racists have for decades. Because I have a black friend — or in this case, a black fellow institution — I am not racist. That is certainly not the intention of the well-intentioned liberal professor. However, that line is still tokenism. It still serves to, ironically, silence free speech by reinforcing systemically-imposed silence.

Fourth, the motion for free expression should include an amendment to the demonstrations and protest policies of the College Handbook. In order to protect disruptive protest as free speech, this point has a number of different sub-points:

  • Arrest and Criminal Charges: Currently, the demonstrations and protest policies allow arrest and criminal charges as potential responses to disruption. That is neither fair nor justified. It is nothing less than the criminalization of free speech. Further, marginalized students often originate in backgrounds wherein the carceral state and police violence play a very real role in their lives. That was the case with the vast majority of the people in my life. Since marginalized students are more likely to engage in disruptive protest, responding to them with arrest or criminal charges can have very real psychological effects that are not shared by white students or well-intentioned liberal professors. Further, arrest and criminal charges have longer-lasting effects for marginalized students in terms of job prospects than for more privileged students.
  • Nonviolent Response: Currently, the demonstrations and protest policies exhibit no prhobition on Public Safety officers in using violence to respond to demonstrations.

These amendments are critical for this motion for free expression to accurately favor free speech. Without the amendments, the motion does nothing but silence the voices of the most unheard further. It is detrimental to its own stated goals. Not only that, but it is a step backward on the long march to freedom and progress paved by Native American separatists, Nat Turner’s slaves, Civil Rights marchers, militant feminists, and Stonewall rioters. If you pursue this motion without championing these necessary amendments, you mark yourselves as just the latest iterations of the white ministers addressed by Dr. King from his cell in Birmingham Jail. The motion becomes yet another injunction of the moral crimes slammed by King the day before his assassination. Like him, I say: the greatness of America is the right to protest forthright. We are still marching to the Promised Land, and a motion for free expression that is not inclusive is nothing more than a wall on the mountaintop that prevents us from reaching the other side. If you condemn our tactics on the basis of civility, you protect a free speech that is only based on your terms and conditions.

Conditional solidarity is not solidarity, and free speech without free access is no free speech at all.