Free Speech ‘Meltdown’

Williams plans to revise its policies after a faculty petition to adopt free speech guidelines enraged student activists.

April 23, 2019
 

A faculty petition at Williams College to adopt the Chicago principles, which many free speech advocates consider the gold standard of free speech philosophy, has divided the campus and pushed administrators to review the college's policies.

Williams is in “meltdown,” said Luana S. Maroja, an associate professor of biology and one of the faculty members who led the charge for the college to endorse the Chicago principles, known formally as the University of Chicago’s “Report of the Committee on Freedom of Expression.” At least 60 entities -- including colleges, universities and higher education systems -- have embraced the Chicago principles since they were first introduced four years ago. The growing support for the principles is due in part to a promotional campaign by the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education, a civil liberties watchdog group. Those who disagree with basing policies on the Chicago principles don't dispute the importance of free expression, especially in academe. But these critics say that reliance on the principles alone can ignore the role of a college in promoting inclusivity and diversity.

"The Chicago principles’ main shortcoming is in the false assurance they offer the colleges and universities who endorse them," Sigal Ben-Porath, a professor of education at the University of Pennsylvania, wrote in an essay for Inside Higher Ed. "They rely on a legalistic and formal framework that purports to offer a response to a set of problems that has little use for such blunt tools. They fail to recognize that higher education institutions must address the current tensions brewing under the heading of 'free speech' -- brought on by students, faculty members and outside forces -- by reconsidering, and possibly shifting, a host of practices in classrooms, dorms, clubs and administrations in ways that would differ across campuses. Those tensions cannot simply be resolved by endorsing a one-size-fits-all statement."

The controversy at Williams comes after President Trump signed an executive order recently barring federal research funds from institutions that do not meet their free speech obligations. Williams is in the process of revising its policies after President Maud S. Mandel announced the creation of a committee of students, professors and administrators to recommend changes that would strike a balance between free expression and inclusion.

The problems at the Massachusetts institution began in September with a panel discussion on free expression in which a well-known religious scholar took part. The scholar was Reza Aslan, a best-selling author and professor of creative writing at the University of California, Riverside. Maroja, who attended the event, said Aslan dominated the conversation and made statements that baffled her, including that administrators should dictate what can and cannot be said on college campuses, and that only “factual talks” had a place in higher education. She said students cheered these remarks.

“This nonsense was met with intense student applause,” Maroja wrote in a blog post about the roundtable. “It was appalling.”

After the talk, she and a couple of other professors decided to start the petition for Williams to adopt the Chicago principles, which say in part:

The ideas of different members of the university community will often and quite naturally conflict. But it is not the proper role of the university to attempt to shield individuals from ideas and opinions they find unwelcome, disagreeable or even deeply offensive. Although the university greatly values civility, and although all members of the university community share in the responsibility for maintaining a climate of mutual respect, concerns about civility and mutual respect can never be used as a justification for closing off discussion of ideas, however offensive or disagreeable those ideas may be to some members of our community.

After the professors drafted the faculty petition, which Maroja said about half of the college's roughly 400 professors signed, they scheduled a meeting in November to discuss the proposal. Maroja said a formal vote on the petition was not scheduled to take place at this meeting.

She said a group of about 20 students showed up, some carrying signs proclaiming “free speech harms” and other similar sentiments. Maroja said the students were disruptive and eventually started yelling at white, male professors to sit down and “acknowledge their privilege.” Maroja said she attempted to engage the students -- as a Hispanic woman, she said she understood prejudice -- and told them that shutting down speech they find offensive would only invigorate bigoted speakers.

The students were unpersuaded.

“Students were just screaming that we were trying to ‘kill them,’” Maroja said.

The students had put together and brought with them a lengthy statement, which has since morphed into a counterpetition, that argued the Chicago principles -- and more broadly, unfettered free speech -- harms minority students.

A recent copy of the student petition wasn’t available, but a version from December had more than 360 signatures. Williams has an undergraduate population of about 2,000 students.

The student petition references a controversial decision from 2016, when Adam Falk, former Williams president, disinvited John Derbyshire, a writer widely decried as racist, from speaking on campus. As a private college, Williams is not governed by the First Amendment, but by its own policies, which can restrict speech that the campus finds distasteful. The college currently follows the American Association of University Professors' guidelines on freedom of expression, which say in part that "on a campus that is free and open, no idea can be banned or forbidden. No viewpoint or message may be deemed so hateful or disturbing that it may not be expressed."

In their rebuttal, the students, who called themselves the Coalition Against Racist Education Now, or CARE, wrote that the faculty petition “prioritizes the protection of ideas over the protection of people and fails to recognize that behind every idea is a person with a particular subjectivity. Our beliefs, and the consequences of our actions, are choices we make. Any claim to the ‘protection of ideas’ that is not founded in the insurance of people’s safety poses a real threat -- one which targets most pointedly marginalized people. An ideology of free speech absolutism that prioritizes ideas over people, giving ‘deeply offensive’ language a platform at this institution, will inevitably imperil marginalized students.”

The student group did not respond to requests for comment. But in an opinion piece in the student newspaper, The Record, CARE representatives wrote that they had no interest in the "free speech debate." They said these issues come down to trust among students, professors and administrators. The students called the free speech argument a "discursive cover."

"For this reason, we refuse to accept the terms of this debate. Instead, let’s see the faculty petition for what it is: an institutional manifestation of a national anxiety towards a more diverse student and faculty population, not an invitation to a dialogue," they wrote. "Prejudice cannot be talked away; more 'dialogue' is not the answer. Oppression can’t be fixed with rational debate because oppression is not rational."

The faculty members never voted on the petition.

Free speech issues were again raised on campus after two professors, Kai Green, assistant professor of women’s, gender and sexuality studies, and Kimberly Love, assistant professor of English, abruptly went on leave before the spring semester. They have written at length about how they have felt "not safe" in academe.

A college spokesman, Greg Shook, offered no comment other than to confirm Green and Love were on leave.

Students constructed a “memorial” in February to express solidarity with the professors, which was promptly taken down by campus workers, who said it violated safety codes. The students were allowed to reinstall the memorial, only to have it removed again. Students said the college's actions didn’t match its stated commitment to free speech.

The committee on free speech that President Mandel formed is due to make its recommendations in about a month, said Jana Sawicki, its chairwoman and a philosophy and rhetoric professor.

Mandel charged the committee with developing policies and an overarching philosophy about campus speakers and free expression, but Sawicki said she views the group's mission more broadly, including to rework the institution's approach toward inclusivity. Committee members have met with alumni, professors and students and have read students' answers to an online survey on free speech. Sawicki said about 530 students responded to the survey.

Sawicki said the committee is close to drafting recommendations. The goal is to not restrict who can speak on campus but to prompt the students who invite those guests to consider whether they have academic value and whether individual speakers' views would offend minority students or make them feel harmed, she said, adding that speakers brought on campus by student groups are generally the most controversial.

One idea the committee floated was involving faculty advisers to student clubs in more of the discussions about which speakers to invite to the campus, Sawicki said. If a student group wanted to host a controversial speaker, the adviser could talk with the club members about whether they'd thought through how the speaker's views would affect their peers, she said. The advisers, who currently are not involved in club operations, would never stop the students from hosting a speaker they wanted, Sawicki said.

Sawicki said she initially signed the faculty petition to support the Chicago principles -- a no-brainer, she thought -- but rescinded her name when she saw the students' reaction.

"What needs to be bolstered here is trust in the institution, and the institution needs to deserve that," Sawicki said.

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