As FIRE co-founder Alan Charles Kors has said, “You cannot say to people, you’re too weak to live with freedom. Only that group is strong enough to live with freedom.”
But that’s exactly what Adam Falk, the patronizing president of Williams College, has said to the college’s student body. Yesterday, Falk unilaterally canceled a speech by John Derbyshire, who was invited as part of the student-run “Uncomfortable Learning” speaker series. While Falk claims to “respect” students’ desire to explore ideas, he believes that sometimes “administrators” (i.e., him) must “step in and make decisions that are in the best interest of students and our community,” saying, “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.” (The UK magazine Spiked has been campaigning to end common “no platforming” practices in Britain for quite some time, but this may be the first time a blanket ban on a speaker, rather than a “disinvitation,” has been so explicitly issued by a leading U.S. college since the days of the Red Scare.)
If Falk’s patronizing of Williams students was not already clear enough from his nauseatingly condescending letter announcing the cancellation, consider this: Zachary Wood, the president of the student group who invited Derbyshire—known for his controversial statements about race—is African-American. Wood wanted to hear Derbyshire speak, he told The Berkshire Eagle, because he “wanted to understand his positions and refute them.” Wood’s comments to the Eagle are worth reading in full, because they reflect a deep understanding of the importance of free expression to society:
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.”
Wood’s comments remind me of a moving passage by longtime FIRE friend Jonathan Rauch explaining why, as a gay man who lived through anti-gay discrimination, he believes in unfettered free speech:
You cannot be gay in America today and doubt that moral learning is real and that the open society fosters it. And so, 20 years on, I feel more confident than ever that the answer to bias and prejudice is pluralism, not purism. The answer, that is, is not to try to legislate bias and prejudice out of existence or to drive them underground, but to pit biases and prejudices against each other and make them fight in the open. That is how, in the crucible of rational criticism, superstition and moral error are burned away.
This is not how Williams College sees it. Rather, the Williams administration believes that students must be shielded from hurtful speech—even if they explicitly seek to engage with that speech for the purpose of challenging it and possibly opening the speaker’s mind.
John Derbyshire and the students might actually have learned something from their encounter with one another. That is, one would think, nearly always the point of inviting a speaker to a college campus, and was in fact the explicit purpose of this invitation. But Adam Falk thinks he knows better. 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.