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After a protest turns violent, Middlebury finds a teaching moment for free speech

Middlebury College students turned their backs to Charles Murray during his lecture last week.Lisa Rathke/Associated Press/Associated Press

THE BUCOLIC Vermont campus of Middlebury College was rocked by a student protest last week that turned violent, leaving a professor injured and prompting much-needed soul-searching by the administration, the student body, and alumni.

The ruckus started even before conservative social scientist Charles Murray, a fellow at the American Enterprise Institute, arrived on campus. Days ahead of his visit, professors discussed Murray’s controversial theories that there are ethnic differences in measures of intelligence. Murray was also paired with a worthy interlocutor, Allison Stanger, a political economist who has written widely on inequity. And Middlebury’s president, Laurie Patton, took to the stage to make it clear she disagreed with Murray but to offer a robust defense of one of the bedrock principles of a liberal arts education: freedom of speech and academic inquiry.


That’s when everything took a darker turn. Before Murray, author of the much-reviled book “The Bell Curve,” could begin his remarks, students stood, turned their backs, and chanted slogans, effectively shutting down the talk. Unfortunately, that should surprise exactly no one in an era marked by sharp disagreements and strident debate, and by nightly food fights on cable television. But as Murray and Stanger headed outside, their car was attacked. Stanger, who was treated at a hospital for her injuries, says she feared for her life.

Violence is simply inexcusable, and flies in the face of the tenets of passive civil disobedience — tactics that the students inside the lecture hall presumably intended to embrace. The college should be commended for turning the speech into a teaching moment — both before and after. Patton is moving forward in an effort to find an educational space where tough conversations about the nation’s deep divisions can take place. She had it exactly right when she said that the very nature of freedom of speech is the right to be heard. And it has long been true that the cure for loathsome speech is, most often, more speech.