It’s FIRE’s pleasure to introduce our undergraduate interns here on the CFN blog. We begin with a post from Braum Katz, a rising sophomore at the College of William and Mary.
A Lesson in Vigilance at Jefferson’s Alma Mater
In 1762, William and Mary’s most cherished alumnus graduated from the College. Thomas Jefferson would go on to become America’s leading sage on free speech and the utmost importance of an unhindered exchange of ideas. That the very principle of a society based on an open exchange of ideas that Jefferson diligently studied at the College has come under attack by the College’s modern-day administration saddens me beyond belief. The historical amnesia that has plagued the College’s administration is truly outstanding and the irony could not be more pronounced.
As a William and Mary student, I have not yet personally been the victim of administrative censorship. The spectre of censorship, however, looms heavily over Williamsburg. In November 2003, under the leadership of President Tim Sullivan, William and Mary’s administration effectively shut down a libertarian group’s satirical affirmative action bake sale protest. In the midst of the bake sale, the libertarian organization, the Sons of Liberty, was ordered to stop selling items at different prices according to race. Seeing no alternative, the organization ended its protest and fell victim to the heavy hand of oppression. Only months later, after FIRE’s intervention and public outrage, did William and Mary renew its commitment to the precepts of the First Amendment and granted the Sons of Liberty “permission” to partake in a peaceful protest well within the scope of their constitutional rights as students at a public university.
Fast forward to today. As of 2005, Tim Sullivan has been succeeded by Gene Nichol as President of the College. President Nichol, the one time Cutler Professor of Constitutional Law and director of the Institute of Bill of Rights Law at the College, has thus far proven a true friend to the principles of free exchange on college campuses. This past spring, amidst a firestorm of controversy surrounding a sex worker’s art show funded by student funds, Nichol steadfastly refused to intervene, stating:
I don’t like this kind of show and I don’t like having it here. But it’s not the practice and province of universities to censor or cancel performances because they are controversial.
Although I personally have faith in President Nichol’s commitment to the principles he himself has studied so enthusiastically, early reports of administrative censorship at a recent student protest put on by the Students for a Democratic Society is disconcerting. While the details of this incident are still forthcoming, I am reminded that as a student I must always remain vigilant and aware. While promises of protecting free speech are one thing, actual commitment beyond rhetoric is quite another. I sincerely hope that President Nichol’s dedication to preserving free expression continues to go beyond superficial lip service.
As members of the CFN, we must all support and encourage one another to remain vigilant and unafraid to confront administrative abuses when they arise. I genuinely look forward to connecting with all of you on the network. I have no doubt whatsoever that together we can make big strides on our respective campuses. Let’s chat…
Braum Katz is a rising sophomore at the College of William and Mary. Originally from Wilmington, Delaware, Braum is a history major. Braum’s specialty is in early American and Jewish American history, and he hopes one day to become a professor. At the College, Braum swing dances, ballroom dances and is a member of the College’s Revolutionary War reenactment group. He may be reached via e-mail at Braum.Katz@thefire.org.