Earlier this month, Charles Murray was shouted down at Middlebury College in Vermont, and the professor hosting his visit was severely injured. Voices immediately rose on their behalf, defending the right of even conservative opinions to be heard in the groves of academe. Princeton professor Cornel West (Race Matters), whose progressive credentials are impeccable, joined with his right-leaning colleague Robert P. George (In Defense of Natural Law), to issue a statement condemning the violence at Middlebury: “All of us should seek respectfully to engage with people who challenge our views. And we should oppose efforts to silence those with whom we disagree—especially on college and university campuses.”
Some 100 members of the Middlebury faculty agreed. In a “Statement of Principles,” they sought to instruct the protestors: “The incivility and coarseness that characterize so much of American politics and culture cannot justify a response of incivility and coarseness on the college campus. . . . Exposure to controversial points of view does not constitute violence. Students have the right to challenge and to protest non-disruptively the views of their professors and guest speakers. A protest that prevents campus speakers from communicating with their audience is a coercive act.”
Media outlets harrumphed their criticisms of the riot—though the New York Times was obliged to print a correction to an article insinuating that Murray is a white supremacist: “An article about protests at Middlebury College . . . over a speech there by Charles Murray, who wrote The Bell Curve, referred incompletely to the premise of the book. It argues that while economic and social success in America is partly a matter of genetics, there are other factors, including environment, that play a role; it is not genetics alone.”
But counter-counter-protests also got under way, supporting the enthusiastic trampling of free expression on college campuses. Perhaps the most piquant defense of hooliganism was offered by Osita Nwanevu, an editorial assistant at Slate, who declared, “There’s nothing outrageous about stamping out bigoted speech.” He went on to warn that “Liberalism comes equipped with a very large self-destruct button. Under liberalism in its purest form, you are permitted to promote bigotry, to argue that certain kinds of people—black people, gay people, Muslims, Jews, women—should be seen as inferior or dangerous. You are free, even, to advocate for their mistreatment and oppression. This is part of the right to free speech and expression. This is also the open back door that Trump walked through, with the forces of a resurgent white nationalism close behind.”
This cautionary remark about the dangers of excessive liberty represents the Internet opinion bubble at its most fatuous and insular. Only the lunatic fringe of the alt-Left would endorse the overt suppression of ideas. Its antecedents are too reminiscent of a society where one set of doctrines was placed über alles.
But the elected enemies of liberty cannot be so easily dismissed. In New York, a bill designed to legalize the “right to be forgotten” was recently introduced by Assemblyman David I Weprin and State Senator Tony Avello. Essentially, the proposed law would require websites to remove “inaccurate, irrelevant, inadequate or excessive” statements about individuals who resent being so memorialized. These people would then be “forgotten” by readers. The courts would determine the extent to which statements are “inaccurate” or “excessive.” Failure to comply could make the writers, or the search engines that ran their prose, liable to statutory damages of $250 per day, plus attorney’s fees. Thus, as Eugene Volokh pointed out in the Washington Post, under such a bill, “newspapers, scholarly works, copies of books on Google Books and Amazon, online encyclopedias (Wikipedia and others)—all would have to be censored whenever a judge and jury found . . . that the writing was ‘no longer material to current public debate or discourse.”
The “right to be forgotten,” sometimes applicable in Europe, is not likely to catch on in the U.S.—not yet, anyway. But only a few years ago, such a blatant attempt to quash free speech would have been laughed out of court, if indeed anyone dared introduce it. Not anymore.
In the aftermath of l’affaire Middlebury, Charles Murray wrote not in anger but sorrow: “I’m pessimistic . . . what happened has the potential to be a disaster for American liberal education.” His conclusion is inarguable. The students in a small, elite college in Vermont—state motto: Freedom and Unity—have sent a message to the world outside academia: for those who prize the guarantees of the First Amendment, the glass is now half-empty.
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