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Williams College cancels a speaker who was invited to bring in provocative opinions

Williams College (Courtesy of Williams College)

Williams College’s president took “the extraordinary step” this week of canceling the speech of an author who had been invited to bring provocative ideas to campus, saying his ideas cross the line into hate speech.

John Derbyshire, a mathematician who used to write for the National Review until he wrote a piece for a blog which was widely decried as racist, had been invited by a student group to speak about immigration and national identity.

The group, called “Uncomfortable Learning,” was formed three years ago  to bring provocative, challenging, outside-of-the-mainstream ideas to campus.

This one went too far, Williams College President Adam Falk decided.

It was the second speaker in the series to be un-invited to the elite liberal-arts college in western Massachusetts. It was another sign of the delicate balance university leaders seek between protecting free speech and ensuring that people on campus are not subjected to hate speech or a hostile climate.

And to some, it was another indication that many colleges have become so left-leaning that real debate is stifled.

A conservative speaker was un-invited from campus. (And then re-invited).

Can colleges protect free speech while also curbing voices of hate?

Falk said Saturday that he strongly believes in free speech. But Derbyshire crossed a line. “The understanding I came to of his writing was that it was simply racist ranting, with no redeeming intellectual value whatsoever,” he said. “The college does not have an obligation to give a platform to absolutely anybody. And a self-proclaimed white supremacist who was going to come and tell students … that they should avoid the African American students, was over a line.”

Zach Wood,the sophomore who heads the Uncomfortable Learning group, said he was disappointed in Falk’s decision.

Wood, who is black, a Democrat and liberal, said he strongly disagrees with much of what Derbyshire writes about. But he thinks it’s more valuable to debate and disprove ideas with which he disagrees rather than to “quarantine” them and bar them from campus.

“Donald Trump says offensive things too, he says them in front of millions of people all the time,” Wood said. “For John Derbyshire not to come just because he says offensive things — I thought the decision undermined the intellectual character of our institution,” as if to suggest that Williams does not value academic freedom, freedom of thought and freedom of speech, he said.

At Williams, Wood said, “the administration does not support political tolerance as much as it supports social tolerance. Our administration does an excellent job of making sure there’s social tolerance on campus; people feel there’s a safe learning environment. With regard to political tolerance — the idea that regardless of what someone thinks, because we are in a democratic society, we are open to hearing views that thoroughly unsettle us — I don’t think the administration does such a good job.

“I can’t remember the last time the administration brought a speaker to campus who was not liberal.”

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Wood, who grew up in the Anacostia neighborhood of Washington, said he feels a lot of sympathy for students who say it would be profoundly upsetting to hear Derbyshire talk about such ideas as his claim that black people are intellectually inferior to whites, or that people should avoid places where there are likely to be crowds of black people.

But people could simply choose not to go to the talk, Wood said.

This fall, the group un-invited a writer who argues that feminism has failed, after an intense backlash from students. Wood regretted the decision and re-invited her. After that uproar, a scholar who believes that the issue of sexual assault on campus has been exaggerated came as part of the Uncomfortable Learning series, and Wood said they had a good event, with tough questions from the audience skeptical about the statistics used.

Derbyshire was to have been the next speaker.

Falk had said publicly that he would never cancel a speaker. And to do so, he said, “is such an extreme action, it  can never be an easy decision. I’ve never done it before and I hope never to again. In that sense it was a difficult decision.”

In another sense, though, it was easy. “Once it became clear who he was and what he said, what it would mean for the college, it was not a close call, or one that I am remotely close to regretting.”

He has refused to cancel speakers who outraged people on all sides of the political spectrum, he said, but they were always people who had ideas worth discussing. “As strongly as I feel that the exchange of ideas is an absolutely fundamental value in our college, there are limits.

“It’s also an incredibly important value that we can have an environment in which we can have those discussions. To bring an avowed white supremacist is to actively destroy that community. This is not an act that fosters difficult discussions. It’s an act that makes truly important discussion impossible.”

He said they have speakers every year from every part of the political spectrum.

On Thursday, Falk announced:

Today I am taking the extraordinary step of canceling a speech by John Derbyshire, who was to have presented his views here on Monday night. The college didn’t invite Derbyshire, but I have made it clear to the students who did that the college will not provide a platform for him.
Free speech is a value I hold in extremely high regard. The college has a very long history of encouraging the expression of a range of viewpoints and giving voice to widely differing opinions. We have said we wouldn’t cancel speakers or prevent the expression of views except in the most extreme circumstances. In other words: There’s a line somewhere, but in our history of hosting events and speeches of all kinds, we hadn’t yet found it.
We’ve found the line. Derbyshire, in my opinion, is on the other side of it. Many of his expressions clearly constitute hate speech, and we will not promote such speech on this campus or in our community.
We respect—and expect—our students’ exploration of ideas, including ones that are very challenging, and we encourage individual choice and decision-making by students. But at times it’s our role as educators and administrators to step in and make decisions that are in the best interest of students and our community. This is one of those times.

Derbyshire did not respond to requests for comment. But he did write about this on his blog, in a post which read, in part:

The college won’t “cancel speakers or prevent the expression of views except in the most extreme circumstances”? Does President Falk [Email him] really think that my mild musings represent “the most extreme circumstances”?  Has he spent much time on the internet?
He likes that word “extreme,” too.  “Free speech is a value I hold in extremely high regard,” he avers.
Here is the primary definition of the word “extreme”
extreme:  of a character or kind farthest removed from the ordinary or average.
The regard in which President Falk holds freedom of speech is of a character or kind farthest removed from the ordinary or average, he believes.
Regard-for-free-speech-wise, he considers himself to be way out in the far tail of the distribution.  Practically no-one has higher regard for free speech than he has!  Uh-huh.
The naked, shameless totalitarianism on display here ought to be shocking, but at this point is just depressing.  That a closed-minded mediocrity like Falk, who speaks in the threadbare cant diction of Cultural Marxism (“hate speech”—whom do I hate, President Falk?  where is the evidence of my hatred?), should be President of a well-regarded college like Williams speaks volumes about the degraded condition of our intellectual life.
I had prepared some notes for my talk.  I shall post them here on at the weekend.  I apologize in advance for the extreme discomfort they will surely cause to any Williams College student whose eye chances to fall on them.

Falk’s decision was welcomed by many on campus. Off campus, it was more controversial. Ashley Thorne wrote in the National Review:

John Derbyshire has certainly made statements that many people find objectionable, and his provocative opinions have gotten him into trouble before, including here at National Review. But there is a difference between expressing opinions as a paid employee and doing so as an invited guest at a college. President Falk needs to be reminded that a college’s job is not to determine which ideas are so beyond the pale that they may not even be uttered. The answer to speech that offends is more speech. This dis-invitation shows a liberal arts college trying to immunize itself from all controversial opinions and remain in a “safe space.” It is to Williams College’s shame that President Falk has “found the line” and banned Derbyshire from speaking.

The Foundation for Individual Rights in Education wrote: “For the moment, it appears Williams has chosen a different path — a path on which paternalistic administrators decide which ideas are too dangerous for college students to hear, even when students themselves have established a program specifically for the purpose of engaging with such ideas. It is now up to the students, faculty, alumni, and trustees of Williams to decide whether that is truly the kind of place they want their college to be, or whether they are going to push back against this act of censorship.”

Falk said he heard criticism from off campus, much of it rather ugly and abusive, racist and anti-Semitic. His parents were both refugees from Nazi Germany, he said, so he can’t help but see the world through that filter, the things he was taught growing up, and he recognized in some of the messages an old undercurrent, a familiar kind of hatred of certain races and the educated elite.

“I think there’s a narrative out there that our colleges are hotbeds of what people call political correctness, and that that’s anti-American. I think often political correctness is a very problematic term, code for, ‘I want to say racist things and I can’t say them.’ ”

He knows many people will see the cancellation as another symptom of college students wanting to be protected from certain ideas or language, asking for “trigger warnings” and “safe spaces” to avoid being upset.

Falk said, “If I were the mayor of a town and John Derbyshire were going to speak in the public square, I would provide him police protection. … John Derbyshire has the right to spew racist speech in the public sphere — I don’t want to live in a country where that’s illegal. But I don’t run a town. I run a college.”

To create an environment in which students learn and are challenged by challenging ideas, he said, “requires something more nuanced than the free-speech absolutism needed to run a country or a town. There are some things that are destructive of our community, destructive of our ability to have those kinds of complicated, nuanced conversations.”