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Censorship at Williams: When You’ve Lost David Brooks

David Brooks, the somewhat conservative columnist at the New York Times, has offered his take on the pro-censorship, anti-free speech movement at Williams College.

 

 

In a tweet on Saturday, Brooks references the student statement opposing the faculty effort to adopt a version of the Chicago Statement and writes: “This is a statement signed by 363 censorship advocates at Williams College. A perfect encapsulation of the fundamentalism sweeping America’s elite colleges.” Most of the comments on Brooks’ tweet were supportive.

There was also the predictable leftist responses as follows.

In my view, the fight for freedom of speech is the most important issue in our nation. The left cannot win if we argue about their policy ideas. When we do argue policy it is too easy for conservatives to point to the real world examples of leftist ideology in action including Cuba and Venezuela. The only way the left can win is by silencing conservatives. It is good that establishment figures like David Brooks are waking up to the censorship running wild at places like Williams.

David Brooks has been writing for the New York Times since September 2003. He appears as a commentator on “PBS NewsHour,” NPR’s “All Things Considered” and NBC’s “Meet the Press.”

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65 Comments To "Censorship at Williams: When You’ve Lost David Brooks"

#1 Comment By abl On December 10, 2018 @ 12:42 pm

How many Williams alums are there? 363 is the numerator, but what is the denominator? This seems to me like a fairly small — certainly nowhere close to the majority — percentage of the Williams community.

The left cannot win if they present their policy ideas.

What a garbage (and unnecessary) throwaway line.

#2 Comment By Williamstown Resident On December 10, 2018 @ 12:47 pm

I disagree. That’s not a throwaway line, it’s the fundamental basis for why the left wants to silence conservative voices. The left’s positions don’t survive any factual evaluation or reasoned debate.

#3 Comment By 89’er On December 10, 2018 @ 1:12 pm

I am greatly concerned about the lack of support for free speech.

For me, that concern is superceded by our head of state’s disdain for our republican (small “r”) institutions and the rule of law generally.

The knee jerk support for said head of state appears to come from the same flawed thought processes that have produced this backlash against freedom of speech.

Both are very damaging and contrary to our republican values.

The author would have more sound footing if we actually had a party in this country that promoted and adhered to conservative principles. We don’t.

#4 Comment By abl On December 10, 2018 @ 1:16 pm

The contexts in which “the left” (aka a small percentage of left-leaning voters) wishes to silence “the right” (aka a much smaller percentage of right-leaning voters) touch on few of the primary mainstream policy issues of dispute these days. And ironically, this line of criticism does exactly what it attacks the left for doing: it sidesteps the substance of the arguments in question. Pot meet kettle.

I want to also point out that I’ve repeatedly offered a substantive critique of this “free speech” point—with which David has yet to engage.

#5 Comment By anonymous On December 10, 2018 @ 1:38 pm

I agree that this is not a big issue. The college should simply adopt the Chicago Statement and get on with its central mission.

#6 Comment By abl On December 10, 2018 @ 1:54 pm

I agree that this is not a big issue. The college should simply adopt the Chicago Statement and get on with its central mission.

I also don’t know how you can, with a straight face, accuse the “left” of wanting to dodge substantive debate on the merits because they will surely lose when this is how you proceed with substantive debate on the merits.

#7 Comment By anon On December 10, 2018 @ 3:35 pm

Brooks is now a member of the alt right?

So is the ACLU?

Who knew?

Ha!

I read in the Record that speakers were only banned like 40 times in the USA….

What’s the big deal?

Of course, that number cannot be known because of the policy of banning speakers secretly without any justification required.

Also the impact of those who have now said it is too much trouble- (Non) visitors like Secretary Rice etc. etc. etc. Secretary Albright too. Ha!

All banned- or rather, “not encouraged to come.”

Plus, do not forget the trouble of having to apply for permission one month out. Students have to apply in writing through admin to have any artist, or speaker, or comedian, or musician come to campus…

Do profs have to do this as well?

Anyhow, if it only happened like 40 times nationally, and since Williams banned at least two speakers (that we know of), covered a work of art, considered the destruction of multiple historic monuments, and cancelled several works of theater- Williams truly is leading the nation!

Williams is #1!

Hahahahaha. What a joke.

Perhaps David will put it in the NYT? PBS Newshour.

Great press for Williams!

#8 Comment By anonymous On December 10, 2018 @ 4:33 pm

The students who wrote the piece under consideration have rejected rational debate. It’s time for the Board of Trustees to just make a decision to protect the ranking and the endowment. If they don’t, they’re clearly not fit to be trustees. It’s not about truth, just power. Why not let those with the power just use it? (and protect their own power).

#9 Comment By Doug On December 10, 2018 @ 10:55 pm

Worth noting that the vast majority of the signees of the petition were current students. As in, at least 10% of Williams’ current student body supported this petition, and that estimate is just accounting for the ones who bothered to sign.

I mentioned in earlier comments how surprised I was that students could endorse such a poorly written and conceived document. I really can’t in good faith continue to donate to Williams when it’s fostering an animus like the one depicted in the petition. Given, I’m a poor young alum, but they won’t be getting my vote of confidence any longer.

Too often, Williams instills a deep cynicism in its students, accompanied by a lack of self-awareness or humility (and nose-piercings and hair dyed a hideous color). It’s rare to find supposed “intellectuals” so secure in their beliefs that they think all outside discussion that contradicts their views should be outright banned, but such is the case with a growing portion of Williams’ student body, and they’re only gaining ground.

Make a statement; don’t support the institution. If Maud can pass the Chicago statement I might feel otherwise.

#10 Comment By abl On December 10, 2018 @ 11:32 pm

I’m not impressed that a petition that only around 10% of the student body signed is in any way representative of the student body or college these days. I also suspect that many of those who signed the petition disagree with certain aspects of it.

Obviously you can read whatever you want into these sorts of things (nose piercings and hair dye??!). I just am not convinced that a petition of this nature signed by only a small fraction of the student body and by a virtually meaningless number of alumni is something that’s worth this sort of grief. Like so much on this blog, it feels like this is riling folks up because it’s triggering something else (again, nose piercings and hair dye??!).

Finally, I’m seeing this repeated trope whereas the desire to ban white supremacists is equated with “all outside discussion that contradicts their views.” That sort of dramatic mischaracterization does little to advance the conversation.

#11 Comment By anon On December 11, 2018 @ 6:15 am

363 out of 2100 is not 10%. Only a few of the signatures come from students who recently graduated. The number of current students who singed is over 15%. Stop fudging numbers.

When Venker was banned at Williams, was that banning White supremacy?

The cancellation of plays? Are these African American playwrights white supremacists?

What about the college professors who singed the free speech statement? Are they white supremacists?

Does the Haystack Monument indicate white supremacy?

The mural at the log?

Is David Brooks a white supremacist?

How about someone like Secretary Rice? Or Secretary Gates?

This argument that bans former secretaries of state, secretaries of defense etc. and even Williams college professors from speaking (sit down and shut up/ admit privilege) seems to have a very broad construction of white Supremacy.

“Anyone I disagree with… ” As the petition notes.

#12 Comment By Doug On December 11, 2018 @ 7:24 am

Abl, I’m glad you have the urge to downplay the support of this petition, because that implies to me that you understand just how concerning it is anyone could support it.

But let’s be clear: as a recent alumnus, I can confirm for you that the views expressed in the petition are NOT fringe views among current Williams students. This is reflected by the hundreds of current students who signed it. Go to Williams right now — if you talk to any random student, there’s a good chance they endorse the ideas of this petition. Don’t lie to yourself that they signed but didn’t agree with it: they can read and know to not sign documents they disagree with.

They also have incredibly loose definitions for what’s racist and should be banned, as anon is pointing out. Keep in mind these same students are the ones who published a document openly calling Dean Dave racist with no evidence to back it up. Seeing this kind of zeal and the college bending to their demands should be pretty concerning for people who feel a stake in Williams’ future.

#13 Comment By anon On December 11, 2018 @ 8:24 am

Doug,

Right.

abl- Is Dean Dave racist?

#14 Comment By anon On December 11, 2018 @ 8:36 am

Abl-

You know all, calling Dean Dave a racist could actually be unprotected speech. Defamation is not protected.

You will notice that the authors of ‘an unofficial guide to navigating Williams’ were careful. They placed (their) defamatory words (calling Dean Dave a racist) with a third party.

The authors did that to avoid the liability of their (not so) hidden (false and damaging) accusation- that “Dean Dave is a racist.”

#15 Comment By anon On December 11, 2018 @ 8:42 am

From ‘an unofficial guide to navigating Williams’

dean dave: very attached to keeping structures as they are, but also very invested in being popular and in the students and willing to do a ton for you if you approach him right. many see him as racist and though he has helped some people of color a ton, it’s important to be aware of this history when interacting with him.

#16 Comment By frank uible On December 11, 2018 @ 8:53 am

How the left has flip flopped on the subject of speech! Back in the day (20s, 30s and 40s) promotion and maintenance of free speech was at or near the top of the Socialist (that’s Norman Thomas and Henry Wallace, son) and Communist (that’s Eugene V. Debs) agenda.

#17 Comment By David Dudley Field ’25 On December 11, 2018 @ 10:15 am

> The left cannot win if they present their policy ideas.

Untrue! Barack Obama (and Congressional Democrats) won the 2008 election while also presenting, mostly, “their policy ideas,” the very ideas that they went on, mostly, to implement.

#18 Comment By abl On December 11, 2018 @ 11:11 am

Stop fudging numbers.

I just used 10% because Doug used 10%. Regardless, there’s no dispute that the overwhelming majority of Williams students did not sign this. Whether we’re talking 9/10 or 17/20 students, it’s clearly unfair to ascribe to the entire student body every aspect and each viewpoint of a petition that they have overwhelmingly deigned not to sign.

When Venker was banned at Williams, was that banning White supremacy?

The cancellation of plays? Are these African American playwrights white supremacists?

What about the college professors who singed the free speech statement? Are they white supremacists?

Does the Haystack Monument indicate white supremacy?

The mural at the log?

Is David Brooks a white supremacist?

How about someone like Secretary Rice? Or Secretary Gates?

You’re mixing up lots of different issues, although you’re also correct that–as Venker shows–I was overly narrow in describing this as being only about white supremacism. Regardless, the speakers who Williams has or would ban from campus (a list that does not include Venker) include those who discuss only a very narrow subset of issues, few-to-none of which are on the forefront of contemporary U.S. policy. This is plainly not about excluding from campus anyone with whom these students disagree and this is plainly not about winning contemporary policy debates by excluding the opposing viewpoint.

Go to Williams right now — if you talk to any random student, there’s a good chance they endorse the ideas of this petition. Don’t lie to yourself that they signed but didn’t agree with it: they can read and know to not sign documents they disagree with.

I don’t doubt that there are more students at Williams than who signed the petition who agree with some aspects of it. My point is that you can’t look to (what you perceive as) the worst aspects of the petition and ascribe them to the whole student body when only a small minority of the student body signed the petition. It’s likely that a number of students–indeed, this group of sympathetic students who you reference–would have signed a different version of the same petition (and it been more cautiously or carefully crafted, for example). But along those lines, there are undoubtedly many students who signed the petition who don’t agree with every single thing about it. And so you likewise can’t ascribe (what you perceive as) the worst aspects of the petition to every single student who signed it. There are undoubtedly many students who agreed with enough of the petition to sign it, even if there are things about it they would change.

They also have incredibly loose definitions for what’s racist and should be banned, as anon is pointing out.

I don’t think anon’s definitions match those of most students. I think anon has mischaracterized a number of the underlying issues. Also, who is “they” here? I am confident that there is widespread disagreement even among the group of students who signed the petition with respect to exactly where to draw these lines. It’s easy to ascribe to a group the opinions of its most radical members; that doesn’t mean it’s true.

abl- Is Dean Dave racist?

I have no idea. I don’t know Dean Dave, nor am I familiar with the underlying accusations that have led to the (one time?) use of the label. Do you? Regardless, it’s fully possible to believe (a) that it’s foolish to adopt a policy wherein Williams has no substantive control over which speakers use its facilities; (b) that some aspects of the student petition have merit; (c) that the Chicago Principles shouldn’t be adopted; and (d) that Dean Dave is not racist. This isn’t a dichotomy. I’m guessing that there are many students who disagree with adopting the Chicago Principles while also disagreeing with the student petition.

I’m also not sure what anon’s point re defamation (/libel) is getting to, but I’m skeptical that “racist” is a sufficiently fact-verifiable accusation to give rise to colorable liability. See https://www.gpo.gov/fdsys/pkg/USCOURTS-caed-1_11-cv-00718/pdf/USCOURTS-caed-1_11-cv-00718-2.pdf.

How the left has flip flopped on the subject of speech! Back in the day (20s, 30s and 40s) promotion and maintenance of free speech was at or near the top of the Socialist (that’s Norman Thomas and Henry Wallace, son) and Communist (that’s Eugene V. Debs) agenda.

“The left” has not flipped on the subject of free speech. See, e.g., the ACLU. There is a movement within the left — comprising a minority of left-leaning voters — that believes that discourse is not per se valuable, and that certain speech creates more harms than good. That movement does not comprise the entire left, and it leaves largely untouched the policy aims of the First Amendment.

#19 Comment By frank uible On December 11, 2018 @ 11:18 am

The First Amendment doesn’t apply to Williams or its student body.

#20 Comment By David Dudley Field ’25 On December 11, 2018 @ 12:53 pm

> the speakers who Williams has or would ban from campus (a list that does not include Venker)

How do you *know* that it would not include Venker? I don’t think you can know, at least until someone tries to invite her and the current Administration decides whether or not she would be acceptable. There are certainly scores of students (and faculty?) who (reasonably!) think that Venker’s views are hateful.

#21 Comment By abl On December 11, 2018 @ 1:23 pm

How do you *know* that it would not include Venker?

Ok — let me amend: a list that does not currently include Venker. (Contrary to what anon posted above.)

#22 Comment By anonymous On December 11, 2018 @ 1:42 pm

The ACLU has been criticized for changing its stance on whose speech they will defend (a charge which they deny). See, e.g.
https://www.wsj.com/articles/the-aclu-retreats-from-free-expression-1529533065

#23 Comment By frank uible On December 11, 2018 @ 2:29 pm

One time long long ago the ACLU pretty much limited itself to protection of the Constitution – but that posture must not have produced enough fund raising or appropriate politically oriented action to be allowed to continue. Perhaps the Skokie matter was the great divide for the ACLU, in which correct (but only correct) politics trumped (no pun) Constitutional principles.

#24 Comment By abl On December 11, 2018 @ 2:33 pm

Frank — like ’em or hate ’em, there isn’t much litigation the ACLU does that can’t fairly be described as “protect[ing] the Constitution.” Additionally, the ACLU has grown dramatically as an organization over the past several decades. I suspect that the ACLU isn’t doing less First Amendment work now than it did 30 years ago; rather, it’s now also doing lots of other civil liberties work.

#25 Comment By anonymous On December 11, 2018 @ 2:59 pm

#26 Comment By Johnny On December 11, 2018 @ 5:18 pm

I don’t agree with this author’s conclusion but here’s Williams College making higher education news again:

https://www.insidehighered.com/views/2018/12/11/what-chicago-principles-miss-when-it-comes-free-speech-and-academic-freedom-opinion

#27 Comment By David Dudley Field ’25 On December 11, 2018 @ 5:39 pm

> a list that does not currently include Venker.

There is no list!

That is, no one knows who is and who is not allowed to speak at Williams. (Just because Derbyshire was, in the past, banned by Falk does not mean — and I have checked this with Williams — that he would be banned again by Mandel.)

The current Williams policy is that the President may, for any reason, ban any speaker she wants.

Maybe that is a good policy. Maybe it is a bad one. But it is a very different policy from having a specific list of banned speakers.

#28 Comment By Dick Swart On December 11, 2018 @ 5:48 pm

From David (above)

The current Williams policy is that the President may, for any reason, ban any speaker she wants.

Maybe that is a good policy. Maybe it is a bad one. But it is a very different policy from having a specific list of banned speakers.

At last, an answer that fits the President’s responsibilities at an educational institution and answerable to the Board.

A list of banned speakers is repugnant and a target for never-ending distraction from the limited time available to attain an education!

#29 Comment By abl On December 11, 2018 @ 5:50 pm

DDF –

Fine. How’s this?: Venker is not currently, nor has she ever been, banned from speaking at Williams (contrary to what anon posted above).

#30 Comment By David Dudley Field ’25 On December 11, 2018 @ 6:47 pm

abl: That is a true statement.

PS. Any thoughts on my solution to this issue?

The Mandel Doctrine: Williams College enforces fewer restrictions on students/faculty with regard to intellectual activities than any public institution.

This avoids all the problems you (correctly!) attribute to Chicago statement while also alleviating the concerns of Gerrard et al.

#31 Comment By Doug On December 11, 2018 @ 7:15 pm

abl, you’re an incredibly literal person to the point that I feel your comments become pedantic and boring.

My main point here was that it’s concerning how much traction this petition managed to gain. I did not (and did not mean to) characterize the whole student body as anti-free speech zealots; I was just noting how there’s a rapidly growing mindset at the college that holds, as the petition states, that free speech is a suspect concept that should be questioned and dismantled rather than respected and bolstered. I’m not speculating about this — hundreds of students signed the petition, which, despite what you argue, indicates a meaningful level of student body support. And as a recent graduate, I have a read on what the campus climate is like and how it has changed in the past four years. The petition is representative of where Williams’ social policies are headed.

#32 Comment By abl On December 11, 2018 @ 8:17 pm

@ DDF:

Maybe I’m not understanding your proposal (or maybe you don’t understand my concerns) — how would that proposal avoid the problems that I attribute to the Chicago statement?

@ Doug:

My narrow point is that you’re advocating punishing the college, an institution with 2,000 current students and many tens of thousands of alums, based on its “fostering” of an “animus” (?) as demonstrated by a petition with ~350 signature. I just don’t buy it.

My broader point is that these discussions are often colored by over-broad claims and mischaracterization and, in the process, a lot of the nuance of these issues is lost. Indeed, I would argue that problems with the way both sides of this debate have handled things have been due, in large part, to a glossing over of nuance. I genuinely don’t believe that everyone in these discussions (a) fully understands the positions of folks who hold different viewpoints from their own; (b) fully understands their own position. Insisting on precision in this context might seem pedantic–and I may sometimes cross the line and become pedantic, for which I apologize–but I hope this illustrates why I think that avoiding overstatements and mis-statements is so important.

#33 Comment By Williams Ex Pat On December 12, 2018 @ 6:35 am

Doug, agreed.

That’s why I stopped trying to have a discussion with abl. I gave up at the point when she said all my arguments were tautological. They weren’t, but such a label distracted from the gist of the discourse and made the experience utterly exhausting. Wordsmithing to death doesn’t make one’s viewpoint the most most valid.

#34 Comment By Doug On December 12, 2018 @ 7:34 am

Abl — yeah, that’s exactly what I’m doing (no sarcasm). It’s fair to disapprove of an institution for how it defends its policies against its own students, even if those students are perhaps in the minority. Would it only be fair to disapprove of Williams’ approach to campus discourse if, say, 1,000 students signed the petition? Or would there need to be unanimous support? My personal experience, paired with the demonstrable success of the petition, is certainly grounds for me to be concerned. I was allowed to be concerned when just one person, Adam Falk, banned a speaker. You’re suggesting a very difficult standard for ever being angry at the college.

I appreciate the nuance you’re trying to add to the discussion, your legalistic writing style aside. It makes me reflect and oftentimes your comments (not just replies to me, but to others) cause me to think about my beliefs more critically and, occasionally, come to different conclusions.

Hey, look at that. My experiences reading your comments forced me to support my beliefs more fully or change them altogether. This neatly demonstrates why we shouldn’t be banning people who we disagree with from speaking!

#35 Comment By anonymous On December 12, 2018 @ 7:36 am

All arguments are ultimately about power, not truth, and should be considered with skepticism (including this one). And at Williams, the Board of Trustees has the ultimate power (and no need for argument—see, eg, divestment).

#36 Comment By abl On December 12, 2018 @ 11:02 am

Thanks, Doug.

#37 Comment By DDF On December 12, 2018 @ 11:59 am

> how would that proposal avoid the problems that I attribute to the Chicago statement?

By including none of the language from the Chicago statement.

#38 Comment By DDF On December 12, 2018 @ 12:05 pm

Maybe this is better phrasing:

Doctrine of the Log: Williams College does not restrict the academic activities of our students and faculty, nor does it allow others to do so.

1) Inviting a speaker to campus is, obviously, an “academic” activity. So, Williams Presidents could no longer ban speakers from campus, as Falk did with Derbyshire.

2) This avoids all the confusing verbiage associated with the Chicago statement.

3) Note the nice branding!

4) The last clause covers the case of students trying to prevent a speaker from speaking, a la Charles Murray and Middlebury. Students doing that would be punished, even expelled.

#39 Comment By abl On December 12, 2018 @ 2:57 pm

DDF (and Doug),

My principle concern with the Chicago statement isn’t its language, but its effect. I don’t think anyone disagrees that some substantial amount of open discourse is a good thing. And I think there’s a strong argument to be made that Williams would be a better school if more effort were put into exposing students to well-reasoned opposing viewpoints.

But every issue doesn’t have a legitimate counterpoint and there are some subjects of discussion that do more harm than good. Williams plainly has no legal obligation to allow any student to bring any speaker to school, and nobody here has yet to articulate any sort of moral obligation. So the only remaining question is whether Williams would be a better educational institution under such a policy. And I don’t see how, educationally, Williams is better in a world in which any single student can bring any speaker to campus than it is in a world in which there is some sort of careful and thoughtful curation happening with respect to which speakers are coming to speak on which topics.

For instance, your policy would allow a wealthy and nutso student to repeatedly book Chapin and other spaces for Flat Earth Society speakers, or speakers propounding the benefits of Freud, or literal Nazi recruiters. I just don’t see how the marginal benefits of using the space for virtually any other purpose–or even just keeping the space open (which takes pressure off of neighboring spaces, allows for impromptu student uses of the space, etc)–don’t clearly exceed, say, the marginal benefits of the fifteenth Flat Earth speaker booked in a given month. This example is obviously absurd, but it illustrates why, at least on the margins, an “everyone should be able to speak” policy isn’t necessarily good. Among other things, every Flat Earth Society speaker booked at Williams is an opportunity lost for the school to bring a serious conservative intellectual articulating a reasoned response to some liberal policy proposal (like the minimum wage or single-payer healthcare or using a carbon tax rather than cap and trade or one of many other crucial policy disagreements with difficult and legitimate arguments on both sides).

This, to me, is an example of a circumstance in which the more difficult and nuanced answer is plainly the better answer. There are real concerns with the question of who decides who gets to speak. And especially in today’s polarized world, there are reasons to be worried that if the decisionmaking power is vested in a single unquestioned administrator acting entirely on his or her own discretion, that there might occasionally be mis-steps or abuses wherein speakers who would be net-beneficial are excluded from campus. My response to that is: let’s work to design a system that minimizes such possibilities. Conceptually, thinking through such a system is more difficult than just saying “allow everyone!” But it seems to me to be, rather obviously, the path to the better educational outcomes. Just as the ideal curriculum at Williams isn’t “literally, take any courses you want, the ideal speaker policy shouldn’t be “if a single student can afford it (or finds outside interests willing to pay), she can bring literally any person she wants to speak at Williams for any reason.”

#40 Comment By ZSD On December 12, 2018 @ 3:36 pm

#41 Comment By PTC On December 12, 2018 @ 4:30 pm

Mandel Doctrine: Williams College enforces fewer restrictions on students/faculty with regard to intellectual activities than any public institution

DDF- Public colleges and universities have a legal obligation to uphold elements of free speech. A public college is a modified or limited public forum.

Good read on that here:
http://uscivilliberties.org/themes/4652-universities-and-public-forums.html

I am not going to speak for abl, but my guess from her posts here is that she would be against the common legal (and I argue moral) principles of free speech on a college campus?

#42 Comment By Yung Alum On December 12, 2018 @ 4:41 pm

abl,

At the end of the day, I have a certain level of confidence in the intelligence and basic decency of the Williams students. If someone from Williams wants to invite a speaker, I believe that they are acting in good faith and truly believe that the speaker has merit. So even if a speaker seems absurd, illegitimate, or hateful to the vast majority of the college, I want a student to have the ability to invite that person. Even if I disagree or don’t understand why such a speaker should have a voice, I trust whoever extended the invite (even if their reason is to be a provocative gadfly who just wants to raise issues of free speech and censorship).

#43 Comment By DDF On December 12, 2018 @ 5:11 pm

But every issue doesn’t have a legitimate counterpoint and there are some subjects of discussion that do more harm than good.

Got a handy list? Maud Mandel would appreciate it!

Trolling aside, even a view that is (rightly!) extreme in a Williams context — like homosexuality should be illegal — is the actual majority opinion in dozens of countries. Would you really ban, say, a representative from Saudi Arabia from speaking on this topic?

#44 Comment By DDF On December 12, 2018 @ 5:15 pm

For instance, your policy would allow a wealthy and nutso student to repeatedly book Chapin and other spaces for Flat Earth Society speakers, or speakers propounding the benefits of Freud, or literal Nazi recruiters.

No straw Ephs, please! If this were a reasonable fear we would see it happening at at least one of the 1,000+ public institutions — Berkeley, Michigan, etc — at which this is, in fact, allowed.

We don’t need to worry about scenarios that have never, ever happened. Why do you waste our time with them?

Instead, please make a case that the “careful and thoughtful curation” at Williams is better than that at Amherst, or any other private college that has adopted the Chicago Statement.

#45 Comment By abl On December 12, 2018 @ 7:13 pm

Would you really ban, say, a representative from Saudi Arabia from speaking on [the illegality of homosexuality]?

Maybe! It undoubtedly would depend on who is speaking and about what exactly. If one wealthy Saudi Arabian student wanted to repeatedly bring a virulently anti-gay imam to campus to repeatedly berate gay students for being gay (complete with slurs and whatnot), that’s obviously less valuable than if the Sociology department wanted to bring a Saudi Arabian lawmaker to campus to discuss how protective civil rights-y legislation works in a country with fundamentally different moral expectations. (And I doubt that I would conclude that the, say, tenth monthly iteration of the anti-gay imam is speech that adds more in value to the Williams community than it detracts.)

I am not claiming that this sort of line drawing is easy. Nor am I claiming to have all of the answers about where those lines fall. I’m saying that carefully delimiting the lines and then carefully considering where proposed speakers fall with respect to the lines will lead to better educational outcomes than adopting a policy wherein every student with sufficient funding can bring whoever they want to campus. How is this not obvious?

The examples I’m providing aren’t straw men. My point is simply that there is a line. Maybe the line is “no literal Nazi recruiters.” Maybe it’s “only three literal Nazi recruiters per year.” You may be correct that the line, wherever it is, is so extreme as to never or nearly never be applied. But it seems ludicrous to me that the answer to “what level of speech regulation will lead to the optimal education at Williams” is “none whatsoever.”

And to be clear, my point is not Williams-specific. To the extent that Williams adopts my recommendations, I think that Williams will be a better school. To the extent that Williams adopts my recommendations but schools like Amherst and Chicago adopt some version of the Chicago statement, Williams will be a better school because of its careful and thoughtful approach to speech curation.

#46 Comment By Doug On December 12, 2018 @ 11:00 pm

abl, you’d be making a good argument if the people pushing these rules were reasonable. They’re not. They will find a problem with virtually anyone you can think of and demand that they be barred from campus. There was a push on social media to disinvite 2017 commencement speaker Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie because she wasn’t sufficiently inclusive of trans people in her feminism. Just a quick example that comes to mind.

If you give these people an inch they’ll take a mile. The sweeping rule of “invited speakers cannot be disinvited” is clearly preferable to me (and I think many other readers of this blog). We won’t be dealing with some Saudi Prince inviting anti-gay bigots to campus every day of the week; we will certainly be dealing with more and more students who demand to be thoroughly shut off from anyone who disagrees with them on social issues. That’s why the open policy is needed and should be openly declared and codified before things get worse.

#47 Comment By abl On December 12, 2018 @ 11:23 pm

Doug –

That’s a separate point and a fair one (and, in my opinion, the better argument for speech absolutism).

There are, undoubtedly, unreasonable folks on both ends of the spectrum. But just as I don’t think a single unreasonable student on the far left should have veto power over any potential speaker, I don’t think a single unreasonable student on the far right should have the power to bring in any potential speaker (or vice versa).

There are many potential policies and systems one could design that would be resistant to these concerns (for example: “no self-labeled Nazi recruiters”). On the other hand, a policy of allowing any speaker whatsoever so long as a single student is willing to pay for that speaker is entirely vulnerable to all sorts of unreasonableness and extremism and capture–which, again, could easily manifest on bothends of the political spectrum.

#48 Comment By Doug On December 13, 2018 @ 7:39 am

Got it. I think you know my reply will be “But who can we trust to decide who’s a nazi and who’s not…” but we’re beating a dead horse here, it seems. You have a reasonable position.

#49 Comment By frank uible On December 13, 2018 @ 7:56 am

We either have reached nirvana because we have ceased counting racial noses or alternatively have ceased counting racial noses because we have reached nirvana. Which is it – the chicken or the egg?

#50 Comment By anon On December 13, 2018 @ 9:22 am

All this is fine and dandy.

However,

How do you handle the people at the college who refuse to let an invited speaker speak?

All the rules in the world have no impact if you allow students and professors to shout speakers down.

Williams College students invited Suzanne Venker, a writer and longtime critic of feminism, to speak Tuesday night, but changed their minds and took back the invite for her talk, “One Step Forward, Ten Steps Back: Why Feminism Fails.” . . .

The students who run the series decided to cancel the event, co-president Zach Wood explained, after its Facebook page began to attract acerbic comments and “things got a little out of hand.”

https://www.washingtonpost.com/news/volokh-conspiracy/wp/2015/10/22/suzanne-venker-is-unwelcome-at-williams-college/?utm_term=.7204bd71e2c6

https://www.insidehighered.com/news/2015/10/21/williams-students-revoke-invitation-speaker-who-criticizes-feminism

So, what good is it to invite a speaker if you allow the speaker to be assaulted- which is not a straw man- it happens often, and at Middlebury. What good is an invited speaker if you allow a hecklers veto?

If you are going to allow a minority of students to block others through illegal actions such as disturbing the peace and physical violence (as was threatened by a Williams professor), what good are any of these rules?

#51 Comment By frank uible On December 13, 2018 @ 10:01 am

True believers rationalize the breaking of rules all the time.

#52 Comment By Current Student On December 13, 2018 @ 3:23 pm

Hi all! New here, and am a current student. Thought I’d add a little perspective from not-an-alum (not that your perspectives are bad!).

1. A while ago, you all were talking about how many students signed the petition and how they represented Williams as a whole. Well, they represent a lot of it. Not a majority, I’d say, but at most 40% (a solid plurality). The reason a petition like this gets only ~10-15% of students signing it is because the vast majority of Williams students are some version of apathetic, where we justify our inaction with various excuses. But make no mistake, there are a lot of people who agree with that petition in its current form on campus, and (20%?) more that would agree if there were some light edits made!

2. (Related to #1). 10-15% is a lot of people! I know it doesn’t sound like it is, but that means if I’m taking a class, 1-2 (or more!) of the students in the class explicitly signed the petition and very actively want to control who speaks at Williams (assuming my numbers above, even more agree with them). That adds a lot of friction in daily life–in class, amongst friends, in sports teams, just in public spaces. Of course, a decent amount of self-selection occurs, but it’s still painful.

3. It’s hard to bring speakers to campus. Believe me, I’ve tried and failed. Money cannot come from private checks (not that I could write those!) or alums, so no wealthy student/alum can fund any old speaker. Most money comes from College Council or the academic departments, and I don’t think either or those entities are trying to fund the most controversial speakers to get them on campus. With all due respect, abl, your points are better suited to theoretical discussion (which is valuable!) and not practical implementation. Not only would it be near impossible to get a Flat Earther on campus once, its certainly not going to happen more than once in an academic year. The money or interest simply isn’t there.

4. Our spaces can handle it! I can’t think of a single time there hasn’t been enough study space on campus with our current rate of speakers, and I’d dare say we can double or triple the rate and still not feel a squeeze. Classrooms frequently lie empty at night in certain buildings, and we as students are certainly adaptable.

Feel free to ask questions! Will do my best to answer fairly and clarify anything I’ve said.

#53 Comment By anon On December 13, 2018 @ 4:14 pm

Current student-

Thank you for solidifying that there is a cooling effect due to the breadth of Williams’ prohibitive speech policy.

As myself and others have stated above, it is not just about who has been banned. More important than that is who would not be invited, because the administration has complete control over this process. Also, who would choose not to attend because they would be subjected to a hecklers veto.

Now, my questions:

Below is a partial list of speakers who have been invited and spoken at MCLA in North Adams in the last several years.

So, my questions;

1. from your person experience, has Williams had similar speakers in terms of the validity of the positions and variety of political perspectives that the people people below have?

2. From this list below, do you believe that there would be any speakers who would (1) not be invited; and or (2) be banned by a hecklers veto? If so why?

Gloria Steinem, writer, lecturer, editor, and feminist activist

Dr. Robert M. Gates, U.S. Secretary of Defense 2006-2011

Ambassador Andrew Young, Ambassador, Congressman, Mayor, humanitarian, ordained minister, international businessman.

Senator George J. Mitchell, Senate majority leader from 1985-1989. Global diplomat.

Abderrahim Foukara, Al Jazeera’s Washington DC Bureau Chief

Zainab Salbi, author and co-founder of Women to Women International

James Carville and Mary Matalin, one of America’s best-loved political couples

Ray Kurzweil, inventor, futurist, and a Director of Engineering at Google

Thank you.

#54 Comment By anonymous On December 13, 2018 @ 5:52 pm

@Current student: Over 100 faculty (Maroja’s Muckrakers) have much broader allowances for speakers on campus.

#55 Comment By Current Student On December 13, 2018 @ 7:39 pm

@anon–

Short answer to Question 1: Yes.

Long answer to Question 1: To be completely honest, I know very little about the specific people you’ve mentioned and their positions. I will say that generally speaking political and public policy figures are usually an easy sell, and to my knowledge the political science department brings in a decent variety of figures to campus. There is obvious bias towards moderate/left-leaning figures, but that is an initial bias–most of the students/faculty in the department are moderate to left-leaning after all. That being said, moderate Republicans definitely do come to campus, and I don’t think George Mitchell or Robert Gates would be a hard sell.

Long answer to Question 2: I simply don’t know specific controversies–or lack thereof–pertaining to the people you’ve mentioned. I’ve done a quick Google search, and most (not all!) of them seem pretty fine to invite to campus to me. Can you comment on why you think they’d be undesirable so I can discuss further? Gloria Steinem seems to be an older wave of feminist figure (from Wikipedia, so correct me if I’m wrong) so she might get some heckling. Andrew Young had…something?…to do with Israel/Palestine, so if he’s pro-Israel that’d be a problem with hecklers. I know absolutely nothing about anyone else, so no comment on them. I will say, there was a talk on affirmative action recently with two anti-affirmative action figures speaking, so not-left events do occur on campus without heckling, if less frequently.

Final Note: Like I said before, we’re often an apathetic group here at Williams. Saying whether or not a small piece of someone’s history will be dredged up is a hard call to make. Get enough political figures that made a pro-Israel comment come through, one of them will be found out and heckled.

#56 Comment By Current Student On December 13, 2018 @ 7:42 pm

@anonymous–

Sorry, I don’t understand your comment. Faculty definitely do have a decent amount of leniency with inviting speakers, but they do face checks by faculty department heads and those providing the money (usually the same person, but not always). They also tend to not want to stick their necks out too far…no one likes being heckled, even if you have tenure!

#57 Comment By anon On December 14, 2018 @ 7:17 am

Current Student-

Thanks. When was the last time the college had a conservative member of government come to speak- someone like Secretary of Defense during the Iraq War- Robert Gates?

Does Williams have speakers like this come often?

I am guessing that someone like Gloria Steinem may create a lot of controversy and not be invited as well… as well as George Mitchell, who created the Mitchell principles- which can be seen as a set of principles supporting western domination in the new world order..

It is interesting that traditional “liberal” and “conservative” labels do not seem to matter (much). What seems to matter is strict adherence to “progressive” values and affirmation of those values- in terms of who may be allowed or denied the ability to speak.

Which leave any conservative view of the table- but also banishes many traditional liberals.

#58 Comment By anonymous On December 14, 2018 @ 7:53 am

#59 Comment By Current Student On December 14, 2018 @ 1:51 pm

@anon–

Can’t recall exactly, but Chris Gibson, a former moderate Republican Congressman, is currently teaching for a couple years at Williams. The conservative students have definitely invited some conservative speakers to campus recently in some low-key events, but I don’t know if they were explicitly from the government. There are usually a handful (6 maybe?) of events that are explicitly not liberal on campus every semester–a low number, but its there. It is very interesting how uniform the views of someone must be to be OK, which really does leave many traditional liberals off the table. If anything, I think they must also be selectively not invited as well. I will repeat, though, that it’s hard to tell if any particular speaker will invite controversy–the conservative talks this semester had no hecklers at all, and often details from someone’s past are overlooked. Sometimes something just happens, though.

#60 Comment By Current Student On December 14, 2018 @ 1:55 pm

@anonymous–

She certainly has! I’ve talked to some Bio kids about it, and it seems as though she really feels strongly about her position. She draws a lot from her early life under a repressive dictator in Brazil. Most important, though, was that students were correcting her in and out of class about what was/wasn’t problematic to teach in a Biology course. That was not OK by her, to be publicly lectured by students like that, especially about what she knows is biological fact.

#61 Comment By PTC On December 15, 2018 @ 7:57 am

Current Student-

What are some of the scientific facts that students object to being taught? Why do students object to such facts?

Any idea how often Prof. Maroja was “corrected”?

What is the administrations position on the teaching of science, as some facts may offend? Are professors being guided to not teach certain scientific facts that may offend some students?

Can students refuse to do a scientific analysis because it offends them?

It is an odd course of events when liberals have become the members of the flat earth crowd. That used to be a spot reserved for right wing creationists and climate deniers.

Also odd also to see liberals argue that fundamental speech liberties do not have any moral value…

Odd times.

Thanks, PTC

#62 Comment By PTC On December 15, 2018 @ 11:52 am

Current-

Seriously, are students allowed to avoid topics that they dislike? In the vein of safe spaces, are Williams students allowed to disregard or choose to avoid basic and proven scientific hypothesis or necessary assumptions in fields of science because they find such assumptions to be offensive?

#63 Comment By Current Student On December 15, 2018 @ 2:44 pm

@PTC–

I can’t speak to specifics, but this is taken directly from Maroja’s first paragraph from the blog post she put online:

Many professors at Williams have been feeling the walls closing in. I’m an evolutionary biologist, and in my classes there is increasing resistance to learning about heritability (probably fear of the “bell curve”, something I actually dismiss by contrasting Brazilian with Americans, as I am from Brazil) and even kin selection! (Using the “naturalistic fallacy” argument, students assume that by teaching kin selection I am somehow endorsing Trump hiring his family.) The word “pregnant woman” is out: only “pregnant human” should be now used (after all, what if the pregnant individual goes by another pronoun?).

I’ve heard of other professors in biology and the sciences having similar issues. The problems tend to be few, far between, and short-lived (i.e. either the professor makes an adjustment and says ‘human’ this one time but never again or just ignores and plows forward), but it seems that by virtue of her ‘controversial’ field Maroja saw a lot of this.

Students sometimes don’t object to the facts per say, but the language used. PC culture in the big wide world is the difference between Happy Holidays and Merry Christmas. At Williams, if you don’t use the word ‘folx’ (gender-neutral of folks, which is in turn the gender-neutral of people, which is in turn the gender-neutral of man/womyn…you get the gist) you are a godawful, no-good progress-hating Neanderthal. It’s hard to describe the potential backlash (it is only potential, as only specific instances are latched onto), but it’s awful.

I have no idea what the administration is doing, or if self-censoring is happening, etc. I don’t think the faculty are self-censoring, but I don’t know about the administration. The reason so many science professor jumped on the Faculty Petition was because they were feeling ‘the walls closing in’ on their respective fields.

Finally, I think this addresses your second comment and this question:

Can students refuse to do a scientific analysis because it offends them?

YES. I just learned this recently, but most (all?) Biology/Neuroscience course offer a second lab to students that do not want to participate in the main lab. I will not speak to their worth (for all I know those paper labs are 10x harder) but it allows students that feel uncomfortable or object morally, religiously, etc. to animal testing, looking at brains, etc. to avoid those topics. Think about it: in a high-level Neuroscience course that a student elected to take, they can go the entire semester not looking at a single real brain! Look, I don’t love the idea of killing a mouse or giving it cancer or anything like that, but I’m also not taking those courses and trying to be a Biologist or pre-med. There are actual pre-med students that refuse to do surgeries! Environmentalist that refuse to study bugs (because you have to kill them)! Neuroscientists that refuse to use lab rats! Even if you do the actual lab, the vast vast majority of students unofficially opt-out. I was being told a story about harvesting mice brains from my friend, and it turns out less than 25% of the kids present actually did anything–most just stood to the side as the TA or one of their lab partners did it. I can go on but I can feel my blood pressure rising.

Hope that answers your questions @PTC–as always, feel free to ask more, and Merry Christmas!

#64 Comment By Johnny On December 16, 2018 @ 7:03 am

Wow. Just wow. What current student’s description shows us is that the situation is so dire that the the quality of education at Williams has already been greatly compromised. The administration seems to be a bunch of spineless wimps, at best, or complicit snowflake-fueling reprobates, at worst, to allow this to go on. I had a sense that Williams had become as pathetic as it appears from the free speech/speaks issue to the John Doe case, but now I have confirmation.

I doubt things will get much better.

#65 Comment By Johnny On December 16, 2018 @ 7:30 am

What current student’s description tells me is that the situation at Williams has become so dire that the quality of education has already been greatly compromised. These examples from “current student” confirms that Williams has become the joke it appears to be from the speakers/speech issue to the John Doe case.

On free speech:

In the private college world, the question is not, “Does the First Amendment require me to tolerate certain speech on campus,” but is instead, “Does tolerating free speech further my institution’s educational mission?” In the overwhelming majority of cases, the answer will be yes, even when the speech is stupid, offensive, or generally of limited value. The reasons are that saying stupid things (and having one’s stupidity pointed out) is part of growing up, and hearing offensive things is part of life that students must learn to accept. In short, even stupid and offensive speech is often educational. In addition, the freedom to say stupid and offensive things is important if we wish to create and maintain an environment conducive to learning and discovery. Failure often lies in the path toward success.

Part of growing up is also accepting that one has to face adversity and do unpleasant things, things one does not desire to do out of one’s own accord, such as looking at a brain when you take a neuroscience course. In all honesty, these students and the fact that the administration does nothing about it (probably encourages it because the administration seems to be all about coddling snowflakes) make the College look very pathetic. Never in a million years would I imagine a college that touts itself as much as Williams to allow these things “current student” describes to go on.