‘Heckler’s veto’ projects a deafening silence from Middlebury
One does not have to agree with Charles Murray’s ideas, or even to be interested in hearing him speak, to be deeply disturbed by the efforts of Middlebury College students to silence him (“Speaker assaulted on campus,” Metro, March 4). The advantage of living in a liberal democracy is that it affords numerous ways in which to challenge speakers with whom one disagrees: engaging those speakers in the marketplace of ideas, for example, or ignoring them entirely. In contrast, using a “heckler’s veto” to keep unpopular speakers from expressing their views not only stifles a particular speaker, but threatens to chill public discourse by discouraging others with controversial ideas from sharing them. Popular viewpoints do not require the protections provided by free-speech rights; objectionable ones do.
What is saddest about the spectacle surrounding Murray’s aborted speech is that many of his antagonists seem oblivious to the history of freedom of speech on American college campuses.
For much of the second half of the 20th century, from the struggle against McCarthyites and the loyalty oaths in the 1950s to the Free Speech Movement of the 1960s, progressive students and faculty had to fight for the right to express themselves freely. It is hard to imagine that anyone fully aware of that legacy could wish to suppress others as they were once censored themselves.
Allowing one controversial speaker, no matter how offensive to some, is unlikely to undermine our values or damage our society. Allowing no controversial speakers threatens us all.
The writer is an assistant professor of psychiatry at Mount Sinai School of Medicine.