EDITOR’S NOTE: This article is part of this week’s “Best of The Torch” retrospective, where we search the archives to bring you FIRE stories worth a second look. This story—which was followed by a rousing response from the president of Williams College’s “Uncomfortable Learning” speaker series, Zach Wood—originally ran February 18, 2016.
Williams College has disinvited a second speaker from its student-run “Uncomfortable Learning” speaker series, a program specifically developed to bring controversial viewpoints to campus. Unlike the first disinvitation, which came at the behest of the speaker series’ student organizers, this order came directly from the college president.
Williams President Adam Falk said in a statement to the university community this morning that he was canceling next Monday’s speech by writer John Derbyshire, whose views have previously been called racist and sexist.
Falk blamed “hate speech” for the disinvitation:
To the Williams Community,
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.
This isn’t the first time Uncomfortable Learning has rendered the Williams community, well, uncomfortable.
Williams made headlines last October when student protests prompted Uncomfortable Learning to rescind its invitation to self-described “cultural critic” Suzanne Venker. As FIRE reported at the time, the college itself was not involved in Venker’s disinvitation.
The college describes the Uncomfortable Learning program as follows:
Uncomfortable Learning is a student-run, alumni-funded organization that aims to encourage students to understand and engage with often provocative and uncomfortable viewpoints that oppose perceived popular opinions at the College.
“The goal of uncomfortable learning,” said [a student organizer], “is to understand how someone who is just as sure as you are in their beliefs can think something completely different,” but he added that the express purpose of the organization is not to convince people to change their beliefs.
Williams confirmed this morning that Uncomfortable Learning had indeed been the ones to invite Derbyshire:
— Veronica Hudson (@luther_swag) February 18, 2016
While student organizers canceled Suzanne Venker’s October speech following student criticism, this cancellation was by the president of Williams College—the same president who, just last October, spoke convincingly and unreservedly about his commitment to respecting students’ rights to bring controversial speakers to campus:
When a controversial speaker – whose views on feminism I object to profoundly, by the way – was first invited and then uninvited to speak, we drew a torrent of public criticism for what was perceived widely as an unwillingness of our community to tolerate the expression of differing viewpoints.
Let me be absolutely clear: Williams has a long history of inviting controversial speakers to campus and no history of uninviting them, and this is a point of absolute principle. Ours is an institution of higher learning; such learning cannot occur without broad and enthusiastic exposure to a wide range of ideas and perspectives. And certainly the invitation of a speaker to campus isn’t in and of itself an endorsement – by the College or by individuals who invite a speaker – of that person’s views. Whatever our own views may be, we should be active in bringing to campus speakers whose opinions are different from our own.
There is no reconciling Falk’s October position with his current one, leaving students with unclear guidelines as to which speakers or subjects are out-of-bounds at Williams College. In fact, the only thing that is clear now is that President Falk has declared his administration to be the sole arbiter of what can and cannot be said at the college, the college’s supposed commitment to free speech notwithstanding.
Although Williams is, as a private institution, free to craft its own rules, it has stated that it is “committed to being a community in which all ranges of opinion and belief can be expressed and debated” and that “controversy is at the heart of … free academic inquiry.” Imposing restrictions on what topics may be discussed and who students may invite to discuss them is the polar opposite of “free academic inquiry”; it is closer to indoctrination than education.
FIRE keeps a comprehensive database of disinvitation incidents on campuses around the country.
It’s worth noting that some of the most controversial speakers invited to speak at colleges and universities over the past century have sparked the adoption of policies that protect robust and open debate on campuses. The prime example is Yale’s 1975 Woodward Report, which is regarded as the first free speech policy statement by a university to espouse a deep commitment to examining all viewpoints, no matter their popularity, as a path toward truth. That report was adopted only after students called for the disinvitation of controversial Nobel laureate William Shockley, whose views many contended were not only patently racist, but incontrovertibly false. The Woodward Report has been cited as an inspiration for the University of Chicago’s free speech policy statement, which FIRE has endorsed, and which schools are increasingly adopting.
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.