'Extremely Non-Disruptive' Middlebury College Students Disrupt Free Speech Speaker

On March 2, 2017, Vermont’s elite Middlebury College made national news when some of its students barred writer Charles Murray from speaking, because of a book (The Bell Curve) he’d written 23 years earlier.  It was bad for public relations, and in response, the college initiated a new program in its political science department, “The Alexander Hamilton Forum” intended “to engage scholars and thinkers with diverse points of view, including points of view that are uncommon at elite colleges.”

On April 17, 2019, Middlebury College was compelled to cancel one of The Alexander Hamilton Forum’s premier events.  This time, leftist opposition was directed at Polish author and politician Ryszard Legutko, and focused on his alleged “homophobic” comments from 2011 (though Legutko had been invited to address intolerance by the Left in liberal democracies, not homosexuality).

On the Middlebury protesters’ Facebook events page, remarks such as this were postedL “Ryszard Legutko is a f*cking homophobe (and racist and sexist),” the protest is advertised as “EXTREMELY NON-DISRUPTIVE.”  Yet within minutes of the cancellation, those who silenced Legutko disingenuously posted: “We are reiterating that it was never our intention to shut this event down, nor prevent the speaker from speaking.”  In an interview with local media, “Jason Duquette-Hoffman, assistant director of the Center for Community Engagement at Middlebury College, agreed. “I think [protesters] were very clear that that was not their intent….’ ”

But Jason Duquette-Hoffman (as “Assistant Director for Privilege & Poverty”) was a signatory, with some 830 others, to an open letter demanding that Middlebury’s Political Science Department and Rohatyn Center for Global affairs withdraw support for Legutko.  The letter insists that Legutko not be permitted a forum:

Students have voiced again and again that bringing speakers such as Legutko is not productive….A cornerstone of any kind of “thoughtful citizenship” should always be listening, and we urge you all to recall the events of March 2, 2017 where the administration, including President Laurie Patton and the PSCI Department failed to listen to the voices of students.

After the college was unswayed by this latent threat to repeat the Murray embarrassment, an addition to this letter ominously warned: “More decisive action will follow.”

The letter states “the PSCI department and the RCGA should be sending a strong message that bigotry of any form is unacceptable instead of giving bigots a platform at the expense of student well-being.”  Yet signatories still say it was “never their intent” to shut down the event, and as authority they invoke… a Middlebury assistant director who had demanded that the speaker be denied a platform.

More ironically, the speaker at issue is a professor of philosophy at the storied Jagellonian University in Krakow, whose recent book alleges that left-wing extremism in liberal democracies parallels the stifling of speech under totalitarian communist regimes, and that “...both systems refuse to undertake any critical examination of their ideological prejudices.”  Under Poland's communist rule, Legutko served as editor of an illegal publication in that country. He was subsequently elected to the Polish senate, where he was deputy speaker, and later served as education minister, then secretary of state.  He is currently a member of the European Parliament, on the foreign affairs committee, where he is engaged in Brexit discussions.

What did this distinguished international dignitary do to merit such derision in Vermont? Chief among the complaints of students was his 2011 statement: “I don’t understand why anyone should want to be proud of being a homosexual…. Be proud of what you do, not of being a homosexual.”  Also, he allegedly “argued that gay marriage is an ‘unnecessary, destructive experiment.’ ”  A Catholic from a nation which is 96% Catholic, Professor Legutko’s views are not so extreme there, and his 2011 statement could be rephrased, with political correctitude: “I don’t understand why anyone should want to be proud of being a heterosexual…. Be proud of what you do, not of being a heterosexual.”

But the students were determined.  Opposition leader Taite Shomo declared “....I think it would be irresponsible not to protest against such a person’s presence.... I intend on exercising my own right to free speech and protest by refusing to allow Legutko to speak here without informing the community of his harmful ideas.”  Another protest organizer claimed that “...queer identity [is] ….something that we feel this institution is implicitly undermining by giving Legutko a platform to speak….”  The Rohatyn Center Student Advisory Board unanimously signed a letter expressing their opposition to the College’s sponsorship of the lecture.

Professor Legutko has some intriguing views unrelated to homosexuality.  His Society as a Department Store argues that “...with the triumph of liberalism over communism, these [Eastern European] intellectuals feel compelled to digest an ideology that shares many elements with the oppressive system from which they just liberated themselves.” In a 2013 essay he asserts that modern secular liberal democracy is disconnected from classical foundations and seeks an imaginary utopia based solely on an ill-defined rights-based ideology, leading to ‘misbegotten ideological enthusiasms incited by the prophets of a better world.’ 

President Trump recently signed an executive order protecting free speech on college campuses.  Not one of Professor Legutko’s alleged statements remotely approaches the limits of hate speech as established in numerous Supreme Court decisions.  And yet these students launched a vicious offensive in bad taste, once again employing the “my free speech is the denial of yours” mantra.

On its “Statement of Protest Event,” organizers pontificate that “Middlebury’s elevation of Legutko to a legitimate academic platform echoes that of Charles Murray in 2017 and once again represents an attack on Middlebury students of marginalized identities.”  That is, having a speaker about free speech must not be permitted any more than Murray, because his very speaking is ‘an attack.’  Organizers then lash out at a Middlebury professor’s appeal to ‘academic freedom’:

We feel that it is necessary to interrogate the nuances of “academic freedom,” as the academy has long been a sphere that reproduces and legitimizes oppressive rhetoric, action, and knowledge claims under the guise of “freedom”. We see the legitimization of Legutko’s speech as inseparable from other instances of unethical educational practice.

The Statement of Protest assures that “We are not protesting his right to say these hateful things.  We are protesting Middlebury’s decision to invite him to our campus, give him a bigger platform….”  Apparently he can say these things -- that he last said in 2011, and that most any Catholic or Christian, or Muslim or Jew, might say -- just not in public.  And he can’t say any new things, or unrelated things, or anything at all, at Middlebury, ever….

The day before the event, organizer Taite Shomo posted on her ‘Ryszard Legutko is a f*cking homophobe’ facebook page:

Hi everyone!  Middlebury College is bringing Ryszard Legutko, far right member of Polish party PiS and raging homophobe and racist, to speak!  Go Panthers!!!!!!!

If you're as pissed off as I am, join us outside of Kirk Alumni Center to show Midd that we will not stand for blatant homophobia on our campus.  Signs, and informational pamphlets about Legutko's homophobia will be provided, but feel free to make your own sign too!!

Also, PLEASE don your ~gay~ apparel!  We're here, we're queer, we're ready to fricken educate.

Then, minutes after cancellation: ‘we are reiterating that it was never our intention to shut this event down, nor prevent the speaker from speaking.”

Someone needs an education.

Image credit: Middlebury College, via Wikipedia // CC BY-SA 3.0


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