There were police officers, private security guards and plenty of discussion about the potential for disruptions at a lecture Wednesday night by the controversial political scientist Charles Murray.
But there was not any actual disruption of Murray’s talk.
About a dozen demonstrators banged drums, played instruments and chanted their opposition to Murray on the sidewalk outside of the Madison Club ahead of the $50-per-plate dinner sponsored by two UW-Madison groups where he spoke. But they couldn’t be heard from inside the building, and the protesters left before the event wrapped up.
There was an unexplained fire alarm that blared for a few moments during a UW-Madison professor’s opening remarks, though it was quickly shut off. There were no hecklers, and the questions Murray fielded after his 40-minute talk were amicable.
Murray’s fiercest critics say he is a racist pseudo-scientist whose ideas are particularly hostile to students of color on college campuses.
His appearance at Middlebury College in Vermont earlier this spring led to violent protests that left a professor injured and drew national attention, with conservatives saying the confrontation was indicative of hostility to their ideas in higher education.
The off-campus talk before an audience of about 100 people Wednesday night ultimately felt more like a typical guest lecture than a First Amendment battle, however.
Murray came to Madison to speak at the “Disinvited Dinner,” put on by the UW’s Center for the Study of Liberal Democracy and the Tom Sawyer Society — a campus branch of the Intercollegiate Studies Institute, a national conservative group that paid Murray’s speaking fees. Organizers said proceeds from the dinner would be donated to the Madison homeless services agency Porchlight.
UW-Madison political science professor Richard Avramenko, the center’s co-director, said the event was meant to “put a microphone back in the hands of an individual whose First Amendment rights have been infringed” by campuses that rescinded their invitation for him to speak.
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The talk was held as state lawmakers consider legislation that would require public colleges and universities to commit to allowing controversial speakers to present their ideas, and to discipline students who engage in disruptive protests of them.
The bills in Wisconsin’s Legislature are similar to those circulating in statehouses across the country, as conservatives mount what they describe as a fight to protect free expression, and what liberals deride as a politically motivated attempt to crack down on higher education.
Murray, a libertarian scholar at the American Enterprise Institute, is best known for his 1994 book, “The Bell Curve,” which provoked heated criticism for its argument that intelligence levels are tied to genetic factors such as race.
“Charles Murray and his ideology, his general philosophy, (are) diametrically opposed to everything the University of Wisconsin stands for,” said UW-Madison student Kelly Ward, who helped organize the protest against his talk.
Organizers held Murray’s lecture — in which he argued that the clustering of wealthy and well-educated people in like-minded communities helps explain the election of Donald Trump — at a ticketed forum on private property out of a desire to avoid potentially disruptive protests.
In an interview before the event, Murray said the ideal place for his discussion would have been at an open, public space, much like when he spoke in a UW-Madison lecture hall in 2006. But he said he understood why Wednesday’s event was more restricted.
“Every school has been scared to death of being another Middlebury,” Murray said.
“Charles Murray and his ideology, his general philosophy, (are) diametrically opposed to everything the University of Wisconsin stands for.” Kelly Ward, UW-Madison student