Last fall, Williams College received criticism (including on this blog) for the intolerant reaction of some Williams students to the prospect of a speech by a politically incorrect speaker on campus. Under pressure, a student group rescinded its invitation to Suzanne Venker to speak on campus. Although the lecture was to be part of the group’s “Uncomfortable Learning” speaker series, inviting Venker apparently made things a bit too uncomfortable for some on campus.
The Williams College administration’s response to the Venker controversy was admirable. Williams President Adam Falk issued a statement reaffirming the school’s commitment to free expression and open exchange.
That was then.
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.
The statement is positively Orwellian. While purporting to reaffirm the principles of free speech, which he claims to hold in “high regard,” Falk abandons them entirely.
I am no fan of John Derbyshire’s. He has written some contemptible things, and I supported National Review’s decision to cut him loose over his intemperate writings. I would not have invited him to give a speech and (frankly) I question the judgment of the students who did. Nonetheless, Falk’s decision to cancel the event — to, in effect, prohibit someone with Derbyshire’s views from speaking on campus — was awful, and represents a betrayal of the ideals of a liberal arts education.
If Falk wishes for Williams to uphold the ideals of a liberal arts college, he may wish to acquaint himself with the Report of the Committee on Freedom of Expression at Yale (a.k.a. the “Woodward Report”). This report, like Falk’s recent statement, was occasioned by a student organization’s decision to invite a racist speaker to campus. Unlike Falk, the Yale administration refused to prohibit the event.
Here are some excerpts from the report:
The primary function of a university is to discover and disseminate knowledge by means of research and teaching. To fulfill this function a free interchange of ideas is necessary not only within its walls but with the world beyond as well. It follows that the university must do everything possible to ensure within it the fullest degree of intellectual freedom. The history of intellectual growth and discovery clearly demonstrates the need for unfettered freedom, the right to think the unthinkable, discuss the unmentionable, and challenge the unchallengeable. To curtail free expression strikes twice at intellectual freedom, for whoever deprives another of the right to state unpopular views necessarily also deprives others of the right to listen to those views. . . .
If freedom of expression is to serve its purpose, and thus the purpose of the university, it should seek to enhance understanding. Shock, hurt, and anger are not consequences to be weighed lightly. No member of the community with a decent respect for others should use, or encourage others to use, slurs and epithets intended to discredit another’s race, ethnic group, religion, or sex. It may sometimes be necessary in a university for civility and mutual respect to be superseded by the need to guarantee free expression. The values superseded are nevertheless important, and every member of the university community should consider them in exercising the fundamental right to free expression.
We have considered the opposing argument that behavior which violates these social and ethical considerations should be made subject to formal sanctions, and the argument that such behavior entitles others to prevent speech they might regard as offensive. Our conviction that the central purpose of the university is to foster the free access of knowledge compels us to reject both of these arguments. They assert a right to prevent free expression. They rest upon the assumption that speech can be suppressed by anyone who deems it false or offensive. They deny what Justice Holmes termed ”freedom for the thought that we hate.” They make the majority, or any willful minority, the arbiters of truth for all. If expression may be prevented, censored or punished, because of its content or because of the motives attributed to those who promote it, then it is no longer free. It will be subordinated to other values that we believe to be of lower priority in a university.
The conclusions we draw, then, are these: even when some members of the university community fail to meet their social and ethical responsibilities, the paramount obligation of the university is to protect their right to free expression. This obligation can and should be en forced by appropriate formal sanctions. If the university’s overriding commitment to free expression is to be sustained, secondary social and ethical responsibilities must be left to the informal processes of suasion, example, and argument.
This articulation of what it means to support free expression on a college campus is one that all institutions of higher learning that aspire toward the ideal of a true liberal arts education should emulate (as the University of Chicago has). Alas, as the Williams episode demonstrates, some schools find upholding such principles too difficult.
To make my position abundantly clear, I do not believe Williams College is under any obligation to invite someone like Derbyshire to campus. I would not recommend inviting him to speak and I question the judgment of the students who did. While there may be some speakers who traffic in racist ideas who are sufficiently prominent to warrant such engagement, I do not believe Derbyshire meets that threshold. (On the other hand, while a student at Yale in the late 1980s, I supported the decision of the Yale Political Union to invite Minister Louis Farrakhan to speak, despite his anti-Semitism, because he was an important political figure at the time whose contemptible ideas needed to be confronted and engaged.)
Given that a student group did decide to invite Derbyshire to campus, however, the proper response of the administration is to allow the event to proceed. It would be perfectly acceptable for Falk or other members of the Williams community to condemn the speaker and attack his ideas, perhaps even to protest outside the event. Prohibiting the event, on the other hand, is a betrayal of liberal values. If Falk is not willing to allow those with distasteful views to speak on campus, he should drop the pretense and make clear that free expression takes a back seat to other concerns (as other members of the Williams community have done).
At the conclusion of a post about the Venker controversy, I wrote: “And to think Williams was once considered one of the finest liberal arts colleges in the nation.” That sentiment is even more appropriate today. Williams students may still rank among the smartest and most qualified in the country, but the institution has clearly betrayed the liberal arts principles to which it once adhered — indeed, to which Falk appealed just a few short months ago.
UPDATE: Seth Barrett Tillman has some questions for President Falk.
SECOND UPDATE: Williams student Zach Wood, President of Uncomfortable Learning, explains his decision to invite Derbyshire. An excerpt:
In my time at Williams, President Falk has been an analytic and deliberative leader. However, I cannot help but think that Falk’s decision to cancel John Derbyshire’s speech at Williams not only does a disservice to the intellectual character of our institution, but is antithetical to the principles of free speech and intellectual freedom that he has previously claimed to endorse. This cancellation evidences the fact that President Falk has failed to show support for student efforts to instill and promote political tolerance at Williams. To be sure, I radically disagree with John Derbyshire on many of his views. Indeed, Derbyshire has said offensive, even hateful things about minorities, things to which I take exception. That is precisely why I was looking forward to exposing the flaws in his arguments. If every student does not desire the intellectual challenge of defending their own ideas against those they find objectionable, that is perfectly fine (anyone can choose not to attend the talk). However, for President Falk to deny Williams students that opportunity by disinviting the speaker was not merely injudicious, but undemocratic, irresponsible, and frankly, pathetic. . . .
. . .
Robust and open discussion of ideas, no matter their content, is of critical importance because that is how we gain a deeper understanding of our world and of humanity. We should not settle for merely refining and advancing our own ideas. We also should not settle for using the term “racist,” “sexist,” or “homophobic” as an excuse to dismiss or quarantine any idea that is felt to be deeply offensive. The best way to deal with speech we dislike is not to restrict it or quarantine it. Rather, it is to combat it, to challenge it, to question it, and to expose precisely what it is about such speech that is erroneous. Taking this approach, I believe, positions each of us to contribute to the advancement of human understanding by interrogating and evaluating the quality of competing ideas. Embracing a diversity of opinions and a multiformity of intuitions is essential to a pluralistic society.
And colleges across the country should embrace free debate because every student in America would be better off improving their ability to defend their own ideas rather than hoping that their ideas prevail by censoring those that disturb them.
I dare say Mr. Wood understands the principles of free expression and the ideals of a liberal education better than President Falk.