Free Speech is Fine, But the College President Knows Best


The president of Williams College in Massachusetts, a supposedly “elite” liberal arts institution, has ordered the cancellation of a student-organized speaking engagement by an author characterized by many as a white supremacist.  In a letter to the college community on Thursday, Adam Falk said the views espoused in the writings of John Derbyshire have no place in the school’s discourse.

“We have said we wouldn’t cancel speakers or prevent the expression of views except in the most extreme circumstances,” Falk wrote. “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,” he wrote. “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,” Falk wrote. “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 was invited as part of the student-run “Uncomfortable Learning” speaker series.  Zachary Wood, a sophomore at the college and president of Uncomfortable Learning, said that while he respects Falk’s decision, he disagrees “with it because of free speech.”

As an African-American, Wood said he is strongly opposed to the positions expressed by Derbyshire, but those views are held by millions of Americans and need to be debated and disproved.  “I disagree with John Derbyshire on just about everything, but I think he should be allowed to speak at Williams College,” he said. “We should hear what he has to say, and take him to task for it. I wanted to understand his positions and refute them.”

Derbyshire, a native of England now residing in New York, had previously been dismissed from his position as a writer for the conservative National Review for an opinion piece in which he wrote that white youths should be cautious in places where there are many African-American people with whom they are unacquainted.  But in a statement to the Berkshire Eagle, the National Review criticized Falk’s decision.  They wrote:

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.

It’s not often that I find myself in agreement with the National Review, but this is one time that I do.  Of course, Derbyshire’s views are despicable; if I were at Williams and he spoke I might well join a protest outside the speech, or walk out at an appropriate moment.  But that’s not the issue.  Falk’s decision violates the free speech rights of all potential speakers and, most importantly, it paternalistically denies to students the right to hear controversial views and to determine for themselves what they think.  In loco parentis, indeed!

The 1967 Joint Statement on Rights and Freedoms of Students, issued by the AAUP, the U. S. National Student Association, the Association of American Colleges, and others, states clearly:

Students and student organizations should be free to examine and discuss all questions of interest to them, and to express opinions publicly and privately. They should always be free to support causes by orderly means which do not disrupt the regular and essential operation of theinstitution.

The Statement also declares:

Students should be allowed to invite and to hear any person of their own choosing. Those routine procedures required by an institution before a guest speaker is invited to appear on campus should be designed only to insure that there is orderly  scheduling of facilities and adequate preparation for the event, and that the occasion is conducted in a manner appropriate to an academic community. The institutional control of campus facilities should not be used as a device of censorship. It should be made clear to the academic and larger community that sponsorship of guest speakers does not necessarily imply approval or endorsement of the views expressed, either by the sponsoring group or the institution.

As for so-called “hate speech,” in a 1994 statement On Freedom of Expression and Campus Speech Codes, the AAUP declared:

On a campus that is free and open, no idea can be banned or forbidden. No viewpoint or message may be deemed so hateful or disturbing that it may not be expressed. . . .

In response to verbal assaults and use of hateful language, some campuses have felt it necessary to forbid the expression of racist, sexist, homophobic, or ethnically demeaning speech, along with conduct or behavior that harasses. Several reasons are offered in support of banning such expression. Individuals and groups that have been victims of such expression feel an understandable outrage. They claim that the academic progress of minority and majority alike may suffer if fears, tensions, and conflicts spawned by slurs and insults create an environment inimical to learning.

These arguments, grounded in the need to foster an atmosphere respectful of and welcoming to all persons, strike a deeply responsive chord in the academy. But, while we can acknowledge both the weight of these concerns and the thoughtfulness of those persuaded of the need for regulation, rules that ban or punish speech based upon its content cannot be justified. An institution of higher learning fails to fulfill its mission if it asserts the power to proscribe ideas—and racial or ethnic slurs, sexist epithets, or homophobic insults almost always express ideas, however repugnant. Indeed, by proscribing any ideas, a university sets an example that profoundly disserves its academic mission.

I can remember when I was an undergraduate at Columbia in the 1960s and a student organization invited both Communist Party Chairman Gus Hall and American Nazi George Lincoln Rockwell (at a university where a significant portion of the student body was Jewish) to speak.  Both speakers were subject to ridicule, but neither destroyed the university or visibly harmed any students.  ln fact, Hall’s appearance was a replay of a 1949 controversy when the Columbia Student Council refused to allow Hall to address the campus Marxist Society.  The Council, however, soon reversed its stance and agreed to allow campus organizations to invite any speakers they wish to hear, which would later allow Hall to return and Rockwell to speak as well.  This, of course, was at the height of the Red Scare, when the Communist Party leaders were under indictment for treason!  Yet, somehow, Columbia survived.  But will Williams survive what FIRE has rightly labeled the “condescending paternalism” of President Falk?

As FIRE’s Samantha Harris concluded, “If you find it jarring that in 2016, a white college president would unabashedly take it upon himself to determine what ideas about race are too dangerous for the college’s black students to hear—even when the person expressing the “dangerous” ideas was invited by one of those black students for that very purpose—you’re not the only one.”



6 thoughts on “Free Speech is Fine, But the College President Knows Best

  1. Chris Newfield’s 2014 Remaking the University post on UC Berkeley Chancellor Berks’ call for “civility” comes to mind,

    Referencing Edwin Thompson’s review of Raymond Williams’ The Long Revolution, Newfield writes,

    ❝But the problem is broader than a misapprehension of the past. The demand for civility effectively outlaws a range of intellectual, literary, and political forms: satire is not civil, caricature is not civil, hyperbole and aesthetic mockery are not civil nor is polemic. Ultimately the call for civility is a demand that you not express anger; and if it was enforced it would suggest that there is nothing to be angry about in the world. The call for civility in discourse confuses the enforcement of administrative time, place, and manner restrictions with the genuine need to defend people from personal threat. The result is that the administrative desire trumps all else.❞

  2. It’s funny how the phrase “I’m not a racist, but…” is mocked so heavily by liberals, but what about “I believe in free speech, but…” That one sounds pretty damn stupid.

  3. BS. A speaker invited by a group of students not authorized by their fellows in the student government (there are details to weigh here), a group funded solely by a very small group of conservative alums, are told they cannot use a campus venue (that is, pay no cost) to host the speaker. Well, then they can do what students did over a century ago when Mark Hopkins (conservative Congregationalist) did not permit Emerson (that controversial Unitarian) to speak on the Williams campus when he’d been invited by a group of students: find an off-campus venue. Speak truth to power! Not overpower the truth with your money from a few rich guys. There are plenty of venues in Williamstown for this talk, in walking distance from campus. Go for one of them. (It won’t work, because almost no one in these parts is interested in hearing his venom. But go for it. It’s a free country.)

  4. Pingback: Williams College president doubles down on banning opinions he doesn't like from campus - The College Fix

  5. Pingback: Raising the bar: Empowering students to change the world |

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