Last month, Williams College announced a final report released by the college’s Ad Hoc Committee on Inquiry and Inclusion. The report covers a wide range of topics related to freedom of expression and open inquiry on Williams’ campus, and the committee members (and Williams as a whole) are to be commended for their careful attention to these important issues. However, the committee’s report also contains reason for concern, particularly given Williams’ recent history on free speech. Ultimately, the report will bear further watching to see whether it protects freedom of expression at Williams in practice.
Williams’ checkered history on free speech
The report comes in response to a campus-wide controversy following the introduction of a Williams faculty petition to endorse the University of Chicago’s “Report of the Committee on Freedom of Expression” (the “Chicago Statement”). The Chicago Statement is considered the gold standard of institutional free speech policy statements by FIRE and other commentators and represents an institution’s commitment to freedom of expression.
This is not the first time Williams has struggled with issues surrounding free expression. The college earned a spot on FIRE’s annual list of “10 Worst Colleges for Free Speech: 2017” for its president’s unilateral disinvitation of a speaker he deemed too controversial for campus. (Ironically, the speaker had been invited by a student group named Uncomfortable Learning.) This past spring, Williams’ student government denied recognition to the student group Williams Initiative for Israel because of its pro-Israel stance, earning it a letter from FIRE. The group eventually received recognition after administrative intervention.
Positive aspects of the committee’s report
In light of this past record, it is encouraging to see Williams community members grapple with free speech issues and pay careful attention to getting the difficult questions right. While the committee itself was comprised of faculty members and college officials, the committee reached out to students via individual and group meetings and an online survey. As such, the report spends a great deal of time discussing student attitudes toward freedom of expression, speaker invitations and events, and open and robust inquiry. As with any effort to improve a college’s climate for free expression, the involvement of a wide range of campus stakeholders is key.
Furthermore, the report rightly emphasizes practice as much as policy, recognizing that Williams officials will need to handle and publicly address speech-related controversies – from divisive speakers to students interfering with the expressive activity of fellow students – in a manner that upholds the principles of free speech and academic freedom. Additionally, the report references a forthcoming institutional statement on free speech for this fall, which Williams President Maud Mandel also mentions in her commentary on the report. That statement, too, will warrant careful review upon release and will help to provide a fuller picture of where things stand at Williams.
Negative aspects of the committee’s report
On the negative side, the report rejects an institutional endorsement of the Chicago Statement. This is disappointing given the Chicago Statement’s eloquent and principled defense of free speech and open inquiry – a quality that has led 66 universities and faculty bodies to adopt their own version of it. Instead, the report calls for Williams to embrace political theorist Dr. Sigal Ben-Porath’s “inclusive freedom” principle, summarized in the report as “an approach to free speech on campus that takes into account the necessity of protecting free speech in order to protect democracy and the pursuit of knowledge while recognizing the equal necessity of making sure that all are included in the ensuing conversation.” However, in Ben-Porath’s argument against adopting the Chicago Statement, the scholar neglects the fact that freedom of expression has long been the champion of minority and oppressed voices, thus reinforcing a false dichotomy between freedom of expression and inclusion.
As FIRE often points out, endorsing a robust free speech statement serves to strengthen a university’s resolve to cultivate a campus community filled with myriad voices and ideas. Discussion is elevated and improved when every voice – including the marginalized and the controversial – is heard. As expressed in the committee’s report, a community that sustains “vigorous campus dialogue” is exactly the climate Williams should seek, a laudable aim for an academic institution that values the search for truth.
Further, the report contains broad and vague language that could facilitate censorship in the future. At one point, the college declares that it is obligated to maintain “dignitary safety” on campus in the face of so called “hate speech,” defined as “the sense of being an equal member of the community and of being invited to contribute to a discussion as a valued participant.” This language sets up the inevitable clash between offensive – but protected – speech, and the college’s inclusion initiative.
In its recommendations, the report also suggests the college “should acknowledge harm,” an undefined, amorphous standard that could mean nearly anything in application. Such broad and vague language threatens free and open debate and could chill a wide range of expression.
Wait and see
Ultimately, while there are some steps forward in the Williams report, one will have to take a “wait and see” approach toward the college’s climate for free speech. For now, Williams remains a “yellow light” institution in FIRE’s Spotlight database for speech codes, due to the maintenance of several speech-restrictive and vague policies. FIRE hopes that the Williams administration is willing to make the necessary revisions to bring those policies in line with the college’s commitment to freedom of speech. More dialogue on these issues, and the continued involvement of a wide range of campus stakeholders, will be important.
As always, FIRE will be monitoring the situation and ready to help students and faculty members stand up for their rights.