Cronkite hosts Reed, Middlebury professors for free speech discussion

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(John Spevacek/DD)

Two prominent college professors shared their experience with extreme student protest and discussed the importance of free speech on university campuses Monday.

The discussion, held at the Walter Cronkite School of Journalism and Mass Communication, featured Reed College English and humanities professor Lucia Martinez Valdivia and Middlebury College political science professor Allison Stanger. Both professors were caught up in the wave of campus protests that broke out across the country last school year.

Valdivia’s classes, among others at Reed College, were interrupted by a group of students campaigning against humanities courses and lessons they viewed as racist or as promoting white privilege. The protests occurred over the course of a year with students perpetually disrupting classes and harassing teachers.

“It was extraordinarily stressful for a decent number of us,” Valdivia said. “I came to dread going to work and I love my work.”

Stanger was set to host a discussion with noted libertarian author Charles Murray at Middlebury College when the event was abruptly halted by protestors yelling over Stanger and Murray, causing the college to move the discussion to an alternative site.

Protesters chanted “Black Lives Matter” and called Murray’s message racist based on The Bell Curve, a book he published in 1994, where he partially blames racial intelligence for the socioeconomic gap between African American and Caucasian Americans.

Violence ensued shortly after the talk as Murray and Stanger were trying to leave.

“As we were leaving the building we were met by a mob,” Stanger said. “They primarily went for Charles Murray. He looked like he was going to fall so I took his arm … As I took his arm someone grabbed my hair, someone else body slammed me.”

Stanger received a concussion from the assault.

Both Stanger and Valdivia pointed to the election of President Donald Trump as the primary incentive behind the source of these protests as well as a misunderstanding of what free speech includes.

“There’s been this sense of disenfranchisement, of disempowerment, of a negative change [college students] never experienced before,” Valdivia said. “They didn’t have to experience those external fears such as Vietnam or for my case, 9/11.”

Valdivia revealed that many students believed things such as “hate speech” are not protected by the First Amendment. Stanger echoed her thoughts and expressed frustration with how free speech is viewed on college campuses.

“Freedom of speech is actually a means to greater inclusivity and greater diversity,” Stanger said. “If we respect the idea that there can be a multiplicity of views we behave in a way that’s more conducive to civil discourse.”

Stanger and Valdivia continued their agreement throughout the rest of the hour long discussion. Both agreed the university setting is where ideas need to be challenged and brought up for discourse. Issues of challenging preconceived notions and allowing for controversial speakers maintained the theme for the majority of the conversation.

“Something I repeat to my students is that the point of class is not to hold up mirrors, it’s to open windows,” Valdivia said. “Students need that existential crisis and if they have the same views we haven’t done our job.”

Li Khan, whose son, Alexander, was a member of the American Enterprise Institute during the time of the protest, was present at the event. The institute helped to arrange the discussion with Charles Murray.

“I agree with the speakers that we must be willing to listen to people even if we disagree with [Charles Murray],” Khan said. “Make sure that before you start protesting you at least read his work. Most of them, I would say, didn’t even read his work.”

The discussion was part of the Cronkite School’s Must See Monday series and a new series of discussions to be aired on PBS regarding the topic of free speech on university campuses.

Contact the reporter at jspevace@asu.edu.

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