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Woodward Report II

Simplicio, a regular commentator here and at the Record, suggests viewing the Falk/Derbyshire dispute through the lens of the Woodward Report. Let’s do that for five days. Today is Day 2.

What is the closest Eph connection? Former faculty member William Sloane Coffin.

So if the elimination of oppression is a rational goal for society (and I think it is), and therefore also a rational goal towards which the exercise of free speech ought to be teleologically directed, then the extent to which free speech helps us reach this “truth” gives us a rational criterion for delimiting the extent to which free speech is to be tolerated. If democratic, undominated discussion within the community so determines, we may prohibit the malicious advocacy of racist or imperialist ideas. As Rev. William Sloane Coffin pointed out: “Unless social justice is established in a country, civil liberties, which always concern intellectuals more than does social justice, look like luxuries. The point is that the three ideals of the French revolution – liberty, equality, fraternity, cannot be separated. We have to deal with equality first.”

This is from the “Dissenting Statement” portion of the report. But isn’t it just perfectly in tune — despite being written 40+ years ago — with the views of the Williams social justice warriors who opposed allowing Venker or Derbyshire to speak at Williams?

Consider the Record editorial (!) from last fall:

Though Venker’s speech is legally protected, the College, as a private institution, has its own set of rules about what discourse is acceptable. In general, the College should not allow speech that challenges fundamental human rights and devalues people based on identity markers, like being a woman. Much of what Venker has said online, in her books and in interviews falls into this category. While free speech is important and there are problems with deeming speech unacceptable, students must not be unduly exposed to harmful stereotypes in order to live and learn here without suffering emotional injury. It is possible that some speech is too harmful to invite to campus. The College should be a safe space for students, a place where people respect others’ identities. Venker’s appearance would have been an invasion of that space.

The big change from the Yale of 1975 to the Williams of 2015 is that the author (Kenneth J. Barnes) of the Dissenting Statement to the Woodward Report has won, at least at Williams. (Temporarily, we (all?) hope.)

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#1 Comment By simplicio On June 14, 2016 @ 11:38 am

The similarities are indeed striking. The editorial posits “a rational criterion for delimiting the extent to which free speech is to be tolerated”, namely “speech that challenges fundamental human rights and devalues people based on identity markers.” Such a criterion would indeed be rational if everyone agreed on fundamental human rights. However, many of these rights are being challenged across the country and the world: self-determination, freedom of conscience, speech, religion, and association, and the freedom to protect one’s life, liberty, and property. It hardly seems rational to suppress all such speech.

Of course, authoritarians never recognize the validity of dissenting opinions on these topics—their opinions are always the only rational ones. That attitude seems to be prevalent at the college.

#2 Comment By sigh On June 14, 2016 @ 1:06 pm

with subtle changes: “Of course, absolutists never recognize the validity of dissenting opinions on these topics—their opinions are always the only rational ones. That attitude seems to be prevalent…”

#3 Comment By simplicio On June 14, 2016 @ 1:21 pm

A fair point, and absolutists can be just as intolerant as authoritarians, if not moreso! However, I’m not sure that “free-speech absolutists” (if that was your underlying criticism) are running the show at any college these days. Even at those schools which hold free expression as paramount rules can play a role (perhaps Sir Dudley Field will cover the recommendations of the Woodward Report regarding time, place, manner, etc.). Williams currently asserts the right to refuse any speaker for any reason whatsoever; I would call that authoritarian, but I am open to other labels.

#4 Comment By David Dudley Field ’25 On June 14, 2016 @ 1:25 pm

Brief Reminder: EphBlog seeks new authors, including anonymous ones. So, simplicio and sigh, please sign up! Follow in the footsteps of Eph ’20 and take a hand in facilitating the Williams Conversation.

#5 Comment By eph20 On June 14, 2016 @ 5:37 pm

What bothers me about the Derbyshire case is the failure of Falk — or to my knowledge, the rest of administration — to frame any sort of neutral principle by which future speakers could be evaluated.

At the moment, we’re called to infer the appropriateness of future speakers through the administration’s short and admittedly kind of mushy cancellation statement.

Falk did that purposefully, for the very simple reason that most in the college community wouldn’t assent to a general principle that limits speech in that way; but most in the community, if they blinker themselves and don’t consider the precedent set, can agree with a Derbyshire cancellation because, admittedly, the guy’s politics are abhorrent to most and his general character isn’t too far improved.

#6 Comment By anon On June 16, 2016 @ 8:05 am

“At the moment, we’re called to infer the appropriateness of future speakers through the administration’s short and admittedly kind of mushy cancellation statement.”

That’s not true. The college is very clear about the policy. Williams College reserves the right to ban any speaker or performer for any reason without explanation.

That is the policy. You accept it. Nothing of note has formed to try to challenge it. For whatever reason, this generation of students and faculty appear to accept that level of censorship. Stop pretending that there is some kind of vagueness or confusion about that.

#7 Comment By anon On June 16, 2016 @ 8:08 am

Of note is that with this new policy you may never know who has “applied” for a speaker or artist to be allowed to come to campus.

The practice of censorship is policy. It is action. It has become normalized. Now that that has happened, the college can “just say no” whenever it pleases. More often than not, that will be a decision made by public relations people, rather than faculty.