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Canty ’88 on Banning Speakers, 2

John Canty ’88, a former op-ed editor of the Record and CIA agent, kindly sent along these thoughts on banning speakers at Williams. Relevant past discussions here and here. Day 2.

Canty continues:

I never recall in all of this time anyone attempting to shut anyone else up.

Exactly right. Of course, it is dangerous to rely on faulty memories for testimony about the Williams of 30+ years ago. (And it is pathetic that the Record archives are not on-line so that we might investigate this claim.) But I agree with Canty that, back in the day, no one suggested that we ban speakers.

The news that my beloved Williams College and Williams Record (see December 5th 2018 editorial) are struggling with a move to endorse—as many other colleges and universities have done–the University of Chicago Principles of Free Expression is therefore personally appalling. Let me briefly recount the Chicago Principles. Like Williams, the University of Chicago has a long and honorable tradition of academic tolerance. Stemming from a number of controversies over recent years where colleges banned speakers from lecturing due to concerns with invading student “safety zones”, a panel of scholars released the Chicago Principles in 2015. University of Chicago Law School Professor Geoffrey Stone, an acknowledged First Amendment scholar, played a key role in drafting the statement, which the University of Chicago endorsed. The Williams Record December 2018 editorial spends far too much time dancing around who is for them and against them. Let’s just look at the Chicago Principles.

For further discussion, see my five part review of the Woodward report, Yale’s 1975 anticipation of the Chicago Principles.

More from Canty below:

For the sake of brevity, I will quote a section of the statement that lie at its heart—and I would argue, are the essence of Western Civilization’s ideal of a university:

In a word, the University’s fundamental commitment is to the principle that debate or deliberation may not be suppressed because the ideas put forth are thought by some or even by most members of the University community to be offensive, unwise, immoral, or wrong-headed. It is for the individual members of the University community, not for the University as an institution, to make those judgments for themselves, and to act on those judgments not by seeking to suppress speech, but by openly and vigorously contesting the ideas that they oppose. Indeed, fostering the ability of members of the University community to engage in such debate and deliberation in an effective and responsible manner is an essential part of the University’s educational mission.

As a corollary to the University’s commitment to protect and promote free expression, members of the University community must also act in conformity with the principle of free expression. Although members of the University community are free to criticize and contest the views expressed on campus, and to criticize and contest speakers who are invited to express their views on campus, they may not obstruct or otherwise interfere with the freedom of others to express views they reject or even loathe. To this end, the University has a solemn responsibility not only to promote a lively and fearless freedom of debate and deliberation, but also to protect that freedom when others attempt to restrict it.

I love this statement. It radiates with a democratic vigor flowing from a deep faith that the open exchange of arguments, evidence, and views in the free market of ideas can only produce social, economic, and political good. Ideas that wither under scrutiny and criticism are not ultimately good ideas. Ideas that gain currency and strengthen from healthy debate have power; as the French playwright Victor Hugo observed, “Greater than all the armies is an idea whose time has come.” As a result, it becomes essential for any college claiming to promote the free mind to uphold a high standard of tolerance for competing viewpoints. Just as President Dwight Eisenhower urged students at Dartmouth not to “join the book-burners” during the height of the McCarthy Communist inquisitions, Williams College has a moral and existential duty to promote free debate, even if it believes that speaker to be wrong, offensive, or demeaning.

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13 Comments To "Canty ’88 on Banning Speakers, 2"

#1 Comment By 89’er On May 15, 2019 @ 10:15 am

Apparently those lessons did not take.

Ephblog 2019 is evidence of that failed lesson.

David – do you see the pathetic irony of censoring a debate on free expression on Ephblog?

John Drew – are you censoring comments regarding your diatribe on the virtues of debate and free speech?

If you cant live by the standards you advocate, you should either change your advocacy or change your behavior.

I would ask that you modify your behavior.

In the meantime, rather than being virtuous examples to others, you serve as a cautionary tale.

#2 Comment By fendertweed On May 15, 2019 @ 12:40 pm

@89’er,

Indeed. Oh, the irony…

#3 Comment By David Dudley Field ’25 On May 15, 2019 @ 1:25 pm

> David – do you see the pathetic irony of censoring a debate on free expression on Ephblog?

What “censoring” have I done? I have deleted a small number of substance-free, childish insults. If you have a substantive point to make, please do so.

fendertweed: You often make worthwhile, interesting points. Feel free to make some more in this thread! But if you post garbage insults, they will be deleted. Do you really object to that policy?

#4 Comment By John C Drew On May 15, 2019 @ 1:48 pm

I’m okay with substantive posts that disagree with me. However, I don’t have any problem deleting profanity or out and out verbal abuse. Ephblog isn’t the CC.

#5 Comment By 89’er On May 15, 2019 @ 2:46 pm

Would you grant Maud or a student committee the power to determine whether invited speakers lacked adequate rigor or substance to be granted such a soap box?

I think not.

What we have is a case of all animals being equal but some animals are more equal than others.

You are making the case by demonstrating exactly what you decry in others.

It would be masterful if it was done with self-awareness.

But it is just sad because you are completely blind to your own hypocrisy.

#6 Comment By fendertweed On May 15, 2019 @ 2:47 pm

Once again, the sense of irony is overwhelming (define “garbage”” –

IMO I could point to any number of droppings by others (let’s leave it at that) that I’d delete as “garbage”‘imo …. how do we know your definition is better than mine (or anyone else’s)?

#7 Comment By abl On May 15, 2019 @ 3:01 pm

I wholeheartedly endorse David and JCD’s use of guidelines to determine what speech should be allowed in this private but public-facing forum. Ideally, their guidelines would be (a) more clearly explicated; and (b) applied in a neutral manner. I also wish that David and JCD acknowledged that what they are doing is exactly what they criticize Williams for doing (limiting speech that they believe is unproductive or harmful to the broader community).

#8 Comment By David Dudley Field ’25 On May 15, 2019 @ 3:07 pm

> I also wish that David and JCD acknowledged that what they are doing is exactly what they criticize Williams for doing

I am happy to acknowledge that!

In fact, I am eager for Williams itself to limit “speech that they believe is unproductive or harmful to the broader community.” For example, I hope that professors, in their classroom limit speech all the time! Some students talk too much and a good professor limits their speech in order to make more room for other speech.

College, classrooms, blogs and other fora should have different rules. Isn’t that obvious?

#9 Comment By abl On May 15, 2019 @ 3:24 pm

College, classrooms, blogs and other fora should have different rules. Isn’t that obvious?

Absolutely! And I look forward to future discussions on speech at Williams to acknowledge that absolute speech in private forums is not per se desirable and that context-specific guidelines are therefore appropriate.

In fact, I am eager for Williams itself to limit “speech that they believe is unproductive or harmful to the broader community.”

I actually think that this would be a productive starting place for speech guidelines for Williams, with more detail and transparency needed for how specifically this should play out in various contexts. Like you mentioned, classrooms probably demand more careful and close regulation of speech than, say, the quad.

#10 Comment By 89’er On May 15, 2019 @ 8:31 pm

God forbid, did we just “iterate” to the fall position?

The only difference being that David approved of Derbyshire but disprives of what he dubs insubstantial?

The irony.

IMO, Falk was wrong. As is David.

#11 Comment By Current Student On May 15, 2019 @ 9:03 pm

Record archives are indeed online up to and including 1990.

https://specialcollections.williams.edu/williams-record/digitized-williams-record/

#12 Comment By dcat On May 16, 2019 @ 10:49 am

I would argue that most posters here have far more standing as experts with a demonstrable interest in “All things Williams” than Derbyshire does on issues of race. In that sense, censorship at Ephblog is far worse and less justifiable than Williams refusing a platform to someone who was going to talk about race yet who was fired from the National Review, which itself has a long history of buttressing white supremacy, for being too racist. It is especially interesting that the diatribes of JCD and Williamstown Resident are given preference and privilege over those of actual alums of the college who are regularly being censored here.

#13 Comment By abl On May 16, 2019 @ 1:37 pm

I think dcat makes a valuable point regarding the relative merit of these respective types of speech. I think it’s also worth adding that there’s another important consideration: what are the respective harms that may be caused by the speech in question?

With speech at Williams, the population impacted includes students — 18-21 years old — in one of the most vulnerable and formative periods of their lives. The specific subpopulation injured by someone like Derbyshire consists mostly of particularly vulnerable students, a population repeatedly told by society (and by Ephblog specifically!) that they are lesser, and that they do not belong at Williams. There are good reasons to believe that the sorts of harms effected in this context are likely to be relatively lasting and destructive. This is particularly true where, as is the case with Derbyshire, the speaker carries some mantle of authority — including the authority of the College implicitly conveyed by the backdrop of Chapin or Bronfman or some other such venue.

With speech at Ephblog, the population impacted consists almost exclusively of mid- to- late- career professionals. Most of us who post here have fully formed self-images and opinions of ourselves that are not going to be substantially influenced by another commenter’s speech, however mean. We are, for the most part, no longer engaged in a significant formative exercise, and we have, for the most part, developed mature coping mechanisms for handling criticism or opinions with which we disagree. Moreover, criticism on Ephblog bears no particularly markings of authority, because Ephblog is literally an entirely open forum (anyone can post under any name they want). Indeed, most of the posters here post using pseudonyms, like “fendertweed,” that although identifiable, do not carry any innate authority. And if things get too rough in the Ephblog community, it’s easy to step aside with really no lasting personal or professional impacts (unlike, say, taking a leave of absence at Williams).

This all to say that the possible harm effected by the speech of someone like Derbyshire–the other, but also important, side of the coin–is far greater than the possible harm effected by the speech of someone like fendertweed, given the context of that speech and the audience in question.

I also want to add my voice to that of dcat, of PTC, and of the others here: the way in which speech regulations have been applied on Ephblog consistently value the suspect (insofar as they are offensive and non-substantive) contributions of posters with weaker connections to Williams (like JCD and Williamstown Resident) over the suspect contributions of posters with stronger connections (like fendertweed, Doug, and myself) in a way that is difficult or impossible to explain other than for ideological reasons.