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Free Speech

There is an interesting discussion at WSO about free speech and related issues. The problem is that, like a poorly run Williams seminar, it is a bit all over the place. It is too bad that more Williams faculty don’t participate in this aspect of the Williams Conversation. Imagine if Will Dudley or Mark Reinhardt or Cheryl Shanks or insert-your-favorite-professor-here were involved in that thread. Wouldn’t the conversation be a lot more focused and productive?

The key is to have a concrete example of “free speech” that some people ay Williams would like to ban and others would protect. Such an example will highlight the opposing views and the reasons behind them. My suggestion: Imagine a student (or professor!) with the following sign on her own door.

The average combined SAT score (math + verbal) for Chinese-American students at Williams is 200 points higher than the average for African-American students at Williams. The College should stop discriminating in admissions against Chinese-American applicants.

Would such a sign be obnoxious? Obviously. Would it lead to hurt feelings and even emotional pain among some members of the Williams community? Of course. Would I recommend that the student with this sign on her door take it down? Yes. But should the College require that the student remove the sign? No.

If free speech at Williams means anything, it entails the right to voice unpopular political opinions.

If the WSO discussion would use that specific example (or a different one), the conversation would be more productive.

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#1 Comment By JeffZ On November 17, 2008 @ 9:40 am

Jesus David. I think it’s OK for students to have a forum for free form discussion without “adult” supervision, whether it be from faculty or obnoxious alums. Even disregarding the lack of any guarantee that adult involvement necessarily raises the level of discourse (see, e.g., innumerable exemplar threads on Ephblog), let kids be kids … WSO was created exclusively by students, exclusively for students, and it should remain that way. If they want to hear your ideas, they know where to look. Same with the faculty.

#2 Comment By David Kane On November 17, 2008 @ 10:19 am

Faculty and alums participate on WSO on occasion. Your claim about “exclusively for students” is just wrong. WSO explicitly provides for faculty and alumni logins.

It’s a free country so the kids can do as they like. My guess is that the students involved in that thread would welcome comments from someone like Will Dudley. The more that smart people, of whatever age, participate in your conversation, the better the conversation will be. It is not a question of “supervision.”

#3 Comment By frank uible On November 17, 2008 @ 11:14 am

The kids will learn more from lousing it up themselves than from lousing it up in accordance with instruction from their chronological seniors.

#4 Comment By nuts On November 17, 2008 @ 2:07 pm

The more that smart people, of whatever age, participate in your conversation, the better the conversation will be. It is not a question of “supervision.”

I that what’s good for them, more smart people participating in their conversation?

How about this conversation? Look at how Eph Pundit was rubbed out. Shameful really.

#5 Comment By sophmom On November 17, 2008 @ 2:23 pm

David, it’s an online student conversation…a chance for them to chat with their peers. To incorporate your suggestion of a professor leading the discussion, would make it…um…class. They have enough of that already.

Besides, I think they do brilliantly on their own. I seldom look at WSO, but when I do, I come away thinking how much we have to learn from them.

And as for your ‘example’ of free speech above? It’s just a stinky old piece of tired bait. I just hope anyone commenting gets enough of a sniff to recognize it as such.

Warning, warning, everyone! Rusty hook and old bait.

#6 Comment By David Kane On November 17, 2008 @ 2:42 pm

1) I don’t want a professor “leading” the discussion. I want a professor to participate, as an equal. A great aspect of WSO (and EphBlog!) is that no one is in charge.

2) I agree (and have documented) that WSO hosts many great discussions.

3) “Tired bait?” Well, then how about you provide an example? As you can see from the thread, the conversation is meandering because (I think) there is no specific example to focus on. It is fine for you to dis my example, but then you ought to provide a better one.

What might a Williams students put on her door that a) she honestly believes and b) would be attacked as “hate speech” by some other Ephs? Suggestions welcome!

#7 Comment By Parent ’12 On November 17, 2008 @ 3:01 pm

Personally, I’d prefer another tack, as opposed to attack or argument, on free speech. On the WSO discussion some students were concerned about censorship. It made me wonder in what way they were being censored. Here, I’d prefer to read about alumni or current students experience of self-censorship & the reasons for it.

#8 Comment By hwc On November 17, 2008 @ 3:29 pm


I see that [name deleted by moderator] has requested that people stop referring to her as “Mary Jane Hitler”.

So, to honor her wishes, how about a new thread where we talk about her anti-semitic Hitler posters and bump her Google hits back up where they belong?

#9 Comment By lgeorge On November 17, 2008 @ 3:32 pm

Parent ’12 –

That’s a topic that interests me.

I frequently censor myself on this blog. I do it mostly because I don’t want to provoke rants or have my words twisted. I find the rants and twistings frustrating, exhausting, off-putting, and sometimes hurtful, and I often think they bring the “discussion” far below what I would expect of the Williams Conversation. I wonder from time to time what it is about blogs that, rather than inspiring self-censorship, seems to promote the sorts of comments that just, frankly, lead to my shutting off from sharing my thoughts.

And I undoubtedly am going to wish I’d self-censored rather than posting this comment.

#10 Comment By JeffZ On November 17, 2008 @ 3:34 pm

I was certainly no fan of the Hitler posters. But I am also not a fan of petty, vindictive alums starting google bomb campaigns against college students. That’s just pathetic.

#11 Comment By JeffZ On November 17, 2008 @ 3:38 pm

I mean hell, HWC has said things on this blog, in my opinion (and I’m sure in the opinion of many others), as objectionable as anything [name deleted by moderator] did. Of course, she has a little more excuse being in college. And at least she had the guts to write op eds and the like explaining her actions. So if HWC starts a google bomb campaign against her, I would like to find out his name and suggest that she do the same to him, quoting some of his racially incendiary commentary and downright bile about our future President. Turnabout is, after all, fair play. But I guess HWC doesn’t want HIS name associated with the comments he writes. How surprising.

#12 Comment By Larry George On November 17, 2008 @ 3:38 pm

“That’s a topic that interests” in my Comment 9 refers to Parent ’12’s Comment 7.
I cross-posted with hwc, which may have crted confusion. The topic in Comment 8 does not interest me.

#13 Comment By hwc On November 17, 2008 @ 3:41 pm

[name deleted by moderator] is requesting that people ask her about papering the Williams College campus with Hitler posters. Since she is a reader her, I just thought this could be the kind of forum she appears to be seeking, since she ducked all the forums on campus where she might have answered questions about her actions and those of her idiot neo-nazi boyfriend.

The only reason she became known as Mary Jane Hitler is because she requested that her name not be used. Now, she has explicitly requested the opposite and, apparently, wants to discuss her defining moment.

#14 Comment By Another ’05 Eph On November 17, 2008 @ 3:58 pm

I would also be interested in Parent ’12’s line of thought on this issue.

I was just thinking this morning about the “comment” features that I’ve seen on most online versions of newspapers, and reading some of the articles (particularly in my hometown paper but also in the Boston Globe), that I’m curious whether the people making certain comments would say the same things in a restaurant, at work, etc.

More germaine to this blog, though, I agree with Larry in some respects: when it looks like the conversation isn’t headed anywhere productive and I don’t have the time to keep up with each little comment to defend my position, it makes me reluctant to participate.

#15 Comment By hwc On November 17, 2008 @ 4:02 pm

Good luck with that. A few Google searches:

“Barack Hussein Obama” – 12 million hits

+Obama +cokehead – 2.5 million hits

+obama +antiChrist – 792,000 hits

“Fresh Prince of Bill Ayers” – 10,000 hits

#16 Comment By sophmom On November 17, 2008 @ 4:06 pm

I agree with Jeff, and also call BS on hwc’s efforts to steer the discussion to that which serves personal vindictiveness.

Hey Jeff, the caucus is today. I’d love to see something posted on that, in hopes that we might hear from students as to the excitement on campus.

#17 Comment By Ronit On November 17, 2008 @ 4:08 pm

Please do not let the troll bait you. Thanks.

#18 Comment By Another ’05 Eph On November 17, 2008 @ 4:55 pm

I forgot, in the other thread, that another of my Best Classes Ever was Public Sphere, Public Space with Mark Reinhardt.

Is there a real-life public space equivalent to trolling in web forums and on blogs?

#19 Comment By Larry George On November 17, 2008 @ 4:58 pm

Query (perhaps a particularly appropriate one to make on a thread titled “Free Speech”): should we ask a moderator who edits another person’s posting to identify himself/herself at the points of deletion or modification (and would we have the capability for the moderators to do that)?

#20 Comment By Dick Swart On November 17, 2008 @ 5:11 pm

While the premise of this post strikes me as voyeuristic, what really gets me is the presumption of critiquing the positions!


#21 Comment By Ken Thomas ’93 On November 17, 2008 @ 5:59 pm

I always put my initials, or such, to indicate…

#22 Comment By lgeorge On November 17, 2008 @ 6:48 pm

This strikes me as a good thing. Should it be a policy?

#23 Comment By nuts On November 17, 2008 @ 7:08 pm

HWC bigot – 478 hits link

#24 Comment By sophmom On November 17, 2008 @ 9:17 pm


Does there just happen to be another “hwc” who sounds just like you, and visits lots of other blog sites, where the main gist of his commentary consists of slamming Obama…or is that you?

#25 Comment By Parent ’12 On November 17, 2008 @ 9:59 pm

After reading Dave’s comment about “priceless” & his other statements on the thread about the Black Caucus, I’m speechless.

#26 Comment By lgeorge On November 17, 2008 @ 10:07 pm

Thanks for coming back here to say that. See #9 above, but I am also chuckling at your coming back to the Free Speech thread to register your speechlessness.

#27 Comment By Parent ’12 On November 17, 2008 @ 10:48 pm

LG, Thanks for pointing me to your comment at #9. I agree with you. I generally try to be politic. I definitely make an effort here mostly because I’m not having a face-to-face conversation, and would rather invite or support discussion rather than quell it or become a catalyst for a tiresome tangent. And, I’ve noticed that even though I try to be clear, at times some hear my words with a tin ear or read them only to re-interpret.

My thought about self-censorship in the context of the discussion about free speech on WSO had more to do with censorship at Williams, which I didn’t make clear. Some of the students had written that censorship occurs on campus. I wondered if this had to do with politics or other issues, like race or sexuality.

I also wondered how much the campus had changed from about the sixties. For example, in the case of politics I assume that Williams was much more conservative in the fifties or earlier than it is today. And, I was curious what alums from before the sixties or seventies, definitely before women were students on campus, would say about censorship, either self-imposed or by the college. In the context of the Black Caucus & John Lewis speaking today, how involved at that time were Ephs with civil rights & the marches?

#28 Comment By nuts On November 17, 2008 @ 11:18 pm

lol funny.

#29 Comment By Parent ’12 On November 17, 2008 @ 11:34 pm

I just went back and read through this entire thread. The process of communication about free speech with the added dimension of real censorship in a cyber-world turns it into… a performance piece.

#30 Comment By Class ’10 Nerd On November 18, 2008 @ 10:33 am

Quit being a dick, and let it go. As stupid as those posters were, your vindictiveness is out of place. A properly executed googlebomb can render someone virtually unemployable at a large company, and can ruin their reputation for many years.

#31 Comment By Larry George On November 19, 2008 @ 7:06 am

Eph Pundit would have been fine but it was gobbling up every other topic on EphBlog. Eph Blog is not well set up for handling situation where one thread has huge commenting traffic. Some changes were made that helped, but the problem still remains. Contrast the way WSO is set up, with its thread index that allows one to see multiple threads, their comment count, and the time of the latest comment. Unfortunately, we can’t have a similar set up on Word Press.

#32 Comment By Larry George On November 19, 2008 @ 7:17 am

This got buried. I would be interested to see it as a separate thread. A few comments over the years (that I don’t have the time to go back and look for) suggest that the ’50s cohort may have fascinating things to say on this subject.

#33 Comment By frank uible On November 19, 2008 @ 8:30 am

I don’t recall any incidents of censorship from the 50s, but given the general authoritarian attitude of the College Administration at the time, I don’t doubt that the Administration engaged in censorship, subtle or blatant, from time to time as it chose, with a compliant student body in a society with a compliant nature acquiescing.

#34 Comment By frank uible On November 19, 2008 @ 8:35 am

Speech censorship that is.

#35 Comment By Henry Bass ’57 On November 19, 2008 @ 1:32 pm

The 50’s were a time of terrible repression. Yet the first couragaous signs of revolt began in the fifties as recounted in the book of my good friend, the late Marty Jezer: THE DARK AGES: LIFE IN THE DARK AGES 1945-1960. The Beats began to publish. In 1956 Allen Ginsberg published HOWL with its defiant opening lines:
“I saw the best minds of my generation destroyed by madness,starving hysterical naked, dragging themselves through the negro street at dawn looking for an angry fix.”

The fall after my graduation from Williams (1957) Kerouac published ON THE ROAD. And the DHARMA BUMS the following year. The revolt was under way.

There was terrible censorship. Ginsberg was under criminal indictment for HOWL and had to flee to Paris to escape jail.Eventually the charges were overturned and Ginsberg could come home. Much was still censored in the US. Harvard’s Library had a wonderful collection of illeagal books. I read Genet’s more notorious books there. You had to read them in the reference room under supervision and were expected to read them in a little over a day. But,any grad student scould read any book without a letter from a faculty member.The excitment of the emerging revolt had an electrity that it is dificult for someone who wasn’t alive to understand. We all thought it was a turning point towards freedom.

#36 Comment By sophmom On November 19, 2008 @ 2:21 pm

I’m not very familiar with the writings of the Beat generation, and it seems that despite their ‘indulgences’, they were fairly prolific.

Hard to imagine that kind of censorship existing so recently.

But thank goodness for the role they played in paving the way for the Civil Rights movement, or who knows if we would now be witnessing our first african american president-elect.

#37 Comment By frank uible On November 19, 2008 @ 2:31 pm

In the U.S. the censorship dam broke starting in the very late 50s and carrying over to the 60s, whereupon such works as On the Road, The Naked Lunch, Tropic of Capricorn, Tropic of Cancer, The Naked Lunch, Lady Chatterley’s Lover and Fanny Hill became available over the counter – not really very shocking stuff by today’s standards. Incidentally if I should reread these, I probably would find the Tropics the most entertaining, but I ain’t going to do it. About 1968 I saw and heard Ginsberg recite some of his stuff, including Howl, at Western Reserve University – kind of boring.

#38 Comment By lgeorge On November 19, 2008 @ 2:57 pm

“Hard to imagine that kind of censorship existing so recently.”

I grew up under the heavy hand of the race codes, which I now understand as closely related to if not a form of censorship (and I do think you are right to sense a connection). It was not long ago at all, and deep vestiges remain. That Virginia had a black governor some years ago and now has gone for Obama, for example, were/are astonishing events.

The changes have been too swift for some and, clearly, agonizingly slow in the realities of the lives of many.

#39 Comment By Henry Bass ’57 On November 19, 2008 @ 5:43 pm

To me Gary Snyder is a far better Beat poet than Ginsberg. Snyder is still writing. And DHARMA BUMS is a far beter novel than ON THE ROAD. It is about a backpack trip Kerouac takes with Snyder and Snyder’s inroduction to Kerouac of Zen. A good introduction to the Beats and how they lived is a fairly recent (2000) book by Barry Miles: THE BEAT HOTEL: GINSBERG,BURROUGHS, AND CORSO IN PARIS, 1957-1963 which tells the story of Gisberg and his pals who joined him in exile in Paris when Ginsberg was threatened with jail for writing, “indecent” literature. The Beats in exile were befriended by George Whitman, grand nephew of Walt, who took over the famous Enlish language booksotore, Shakespeare and Co. from Sylvia Beach, hangout of Hemmingway, etc before WW II. Whitman now in his 90’s still runs the store. There is an open house with tea every Sunday afternoon, where you can met literary types. And aspiring poets can even crash in return for clerking a bit in the bookstore. Someone, I know crashed there fairly recently. And there has been no NYT obit. The Beat Hotel was near the bookstore.

#40 Comment By lgeorge On November 20, 2008 @ 12:33 pm

New program: university-paid student online discussion moderators (nannies? upholders of community standards? censors? conversation-inhibitors or conversation-enablers?) at Queens University in Canada.