Williams: Friend, Not Foe?

By March 4, 2005

I am also adding to David’s and Greg’s posts on Patricia Williams’ article “Power and the Word” in The Nation. David and Greg thoroughly defended FIRE from Williams’ understanding of our work, but in rereading the rest of her article, I found it actually brought up important points relevant to free speech on campus.

First, Williams’ article touches upon a central issue of why defending equal rights to free speech is so important. While plenty of people have called for Ward Churchill to be fired, countless others probably wouldn’t mind if Bill O’Reilly and Lt. Gen. James Mattis also were fired. While some people saw “the truth” in Mattis’ statements, some see “truth” in Churchill’s. Both David (see “A Rare Opportunity”) and I (see “Whose Far Is ‘Too Far’?”) have pointed this out as the very reason that we can’t let double standards and subjective feelings infringe upon freedom of speech.

Second, Williams also wrote that “[i]n this war of words and polemical personalities, there is an increasing privatization of speech….” The privatization of speech—and, therefore, the “marketplace of ideas” on a given campus—is a real concern as public universities around the country are considering becoming semi-privatized. FIRE, too, is very concerned that increasing privatization of public schools may lead to reduced respect for free speech on campus.

Third, Williams also wrote, “The model of the university they espouse is not the one envisioned by Justice Louis Brandeis, to whom even open antagonism was a necessary component of civic engagement because ‘the greatest menace to freedom is an inert people…. The path of safety lies in the opportunity to discuss freely supposed grievances and proposed remedies.’” Actually, the model of university that we espouse is exactly the one envisioned by Justice Brandeis in this quote. For example, in my recent post on the situation at Columbia, I wrote, “Not only do universities need to end all forms of arbitrary censorship of their students and faculty, but they also need to be able to readily provide effective opportunities for vigorous debate and reflection whenever it is needed.” This includes both public and private universities.

Finally, Williams rightly points out that, similar to the British upper-class vs. lower-class dynamic, sometimes “we privilege power with a kind of unconsciousness….” Well, on campus and elsewhere, some individual students do overlook their own agency and unconsciously privilege those in positions of authority, such as administrators and professors, with the power to censor their expression or control their behavior, especially when they are misinformed (or not informed at all) about what their legal rights really are. Empowering students with the information to reclaim and exercise their individual agency is the impetus for FIRE’s Individual Rights Education Program, which includes the development of our Guides to Student Rights on Campus. Being better informed means a fairer marketplace for students so that they can choose what ideas they want to take or contribute—or choose to stay silent—instead of having speech imposed on them by those in authority.

So it looks like Williams and FIRE actually have a lot in common. Looking at these issues critically, Williams and others like her might notice that they and FIRE should be friends, not foes.

Schools: Columbia University University of Colorado at Boulder