Palmer Commons was rocked Wednesday night by the presence and subsequent protests of Charles Murray, a controversial social scientist known for a correlation of race and IQ, a theory debunked widely over the years.
His co-authorship of the 1994 book “The Bell Curve” draws connections between race, intelligence and socioeconomic status. Murray was invited to speak by the University of Michigan’s chapter of College Republicans and the American Enterprise Institute University of Michigan Executive Council. A week ago, posters with statistics inspired by Murray’s book were hung near Stockwell Residence Hall. Despite this, College Republicans still held the event as planned.
Prior to the speech, Palmer Commons was placed on lockdown by the Division of Public Safety and Security and the Ann Arbor police to ensure any protests that occurred would stay under control.
Only the first 200 students and faculty of the University with valid Mcards were permitted into the event. People attending the speech had to have their bags and belongings searched prior to entering Palmer Commons, and they were once again searched before entering the room where the speech would be held.
LSA senior Ben Decatur, co-chair of the AEI Executive Council at the University, introduced Murray and spoke on the right of free speech and the importance of that right. He went on to discuss the potential for protest and invited any protesters to engage with the speaker instead of attempting to prevent Murray from speaking.
“If the hosts of tonight’s program, in collaboration with University representatives, believe that the protesters are interfering unduly with the speaker’s freedom of expression, those protesters will be warned by a University administrator,” Decatur said. “If warnings are not heeded and interference continues, the individuals responsible may be removed from the building.”
Decatur turned the podium over to Murray, who was met with a mixture of cheers and boos. As Murray began to speak, a student in the audience began playing the theme song for the introduction of Darth Vader in the Star Wars movies.
The audience raised signs accusing Murray of being a white supremacist and a racist. Students in the back of the audience began to set off alarms on their phones to drown out the words of Murray. After only 10 minutes, the speech was brought to a grinding halt, as the protesters turned off the lights and projected the words “White Supremacist” behind Murray as they chanted “Racist, Sexist, KKK, Charles Murray go away.”
Students began taking turns to scramble up to the front of the room to interrupt Murray and read pre-written speeches of their own. After the first protester read off their speech accusing Murray of wanting the protester dead because of his Iranian heritage, LSA senior Farid Alsabeh confronted the protesters for denying him the right to listen to what Murray had to say.
When the event had concluded, Alsabeh spoke on why he felt the need to speak out.
“When I saw that people’s first instinct was to infringe on my right to listen to a public intellectual at a public institution I felt like I just had to say: ‘Listen, you’re making it too much about yourself. Can we please think about the other people who are just here to listen to ideas?’” he said.
In an interview prior to the speech, Murray pushed back on what he thinks are misunderstandings and mischaracterizations of his work and his beliefs.
“The characterization of me as a white supremacist or a white nationalist or any of the various other things is unaccompanied by any direct evidence that I believe any of that stuff,” Murray said.
Murray said the reason college campuses have become hostile to speakers, such as himself, can be attributed to the anger that has arisen from the election of President Trump. Murray also stated college students have become more sensitive over the past decade and he believes this is primarily due to the rise of identity politics.
Murray spent the next portion of the event debating with a student of color at the podium over whether “The Bell Curve” supports the idea that Blacks are less intelligent than whites.
After the student left the podium, the audience turned to a different tactic to attempt to disrupt Murray’s speech. Instead of chanting, the audience instead tried to completely ignore Murray by putting in earbuds, reading books and opening copies of newspapers in front of their faces.
After a few minutes of this new tactic, most of the students present stood up and walked out in one final act of protest.
After the protesters had left, Murray used the remaining 40 minutes to answer questions from those who remained and spoke on the intended topic of his speech: the reasons for why Donald Trump came to power in the White House. Murray concluded the event by thanking those who stood up for his right to speak during the protests and for those who stayed throughout the entire event to hear him speak at the end.
During the period for questions at the end of the event, an audience member asked Murray for his thoughts on the rightward shift within the Republican party and the leftward shift within the Democratic party since the 2016 election. Murray responded by relating the question back to the protests from earlier on.
“This was being streamed tonight, right?” Murray asked. “The number of people who are going to see what went on there and are going to be moved further right compared to the number of people who saw that and say — Oh that’s great this is what we want — and there’s asymmetry there.”
In statements released the following day, Decatur as well as LSA senior Enrique Zalamea the president of the University’s chapter of the College Republicans, stated their disappointment with the student protests.
“I was personally ashamed to see such pitiful and disrespectful behavior from people who call themselves scholars, academics, and students of the University of Michigan.” Zalamea wrote in an e-mail statement after the event. “As a staunch advocate for free speech, I was incredibly disheartened to see the same people who call for equality now commandeering the spotlight only to promote their own one-sided agenda. They would ask great questions, but when the time came to listen to the answers from the other side, they pulled out newspapers, set off phone alarms, or flat-out booed.”
Decatur, although echoing many of the same frustrations as Zalamea, expressed his hope that those who remained at the event after the protesters’ departure were able to learn from the speech.
“After the dust settled, our event was able to proceed. Michigan students who came to the event to genuinely engage with our speaker were given the opportunity to do so. We hope that from this conversation students were able to gain a new perspective. Isn’t that what college is for?”
Despite Murray's explanations for his viewpoints, later, Matthew Countryman, associate history professor, explained in a Facebook post his dismay at the event. In his post, he also wrote about his concern that Murray was still allowed a platform to discuss the ideas put forth in his controversial book.
"Charles Murray is a stone-cold racist. I know," Countryman wrote. "What else is new? But it wasn't until after the protesters left his talk tonight that he dropped his slick pretense and began to share with the remaining 20 or so College Republicans his many theories about the genetic basis for differences not only in intelligence but in culture as well."
This article has been updated to include later statements made by event organizers