Defending the Mad Cow on legal grounds

In response to College Council’s decision to censor The Mad Cow last year, I immediately began composing the legalistic argument that finds CC’s decisions incorrect. I firmly believe that if The Mad Cow wanted to make this into a legal battle, it could win.

Before simply citing precedent, I decided to examine the meaning behind the law. I ask myself, what is conceptually behind freedom of speech? Why is freedom of speech protected? What are we losing when we at Williams say that we are a private institution, and thus not legally bound by the First Amendment?

Freedom of speech has always been one of those rights I took for granted. I saw it as a foundation of our country. The sentiment, “I may not agree with what you say, but I will fight to the death to defend your right to say it,” has always been implied for me.

What would our society be like without freedom of speech? A society where all speech had to coincide with certain government established norms? That would be great. We could get rid of all offensive statements. Rid the world of bad opinions. No need to defend or justify policies then, because we can just silence any who waste time arguing the wrong viewpoint.

By limiting speech to ‘acceptable’ topics, aren’t we doing a disservice to the society we are trying to protect? How can our thoughts and our society develop if we place such limits on them? If unpopular or unacceptable ideas are not allowed to exist? How can we develop if we are not allowed to question ourselves? Beyond the harmful effects such a decision has to society, what right does a government have to restrict an individual’s expression?

I’m no scholar of history, but I was under the impression that our country was founded on the tenet that all men are created equal. In order to apply restrictions on expression, a person or persons must be moderator of taste and make decisions that limit the speech of others. This situation implies fundamental inequality between the class that moderates speech and the class that is moderated – which is in direct violation with “all men are created equal.”

It seems to me that speech, nearly any kind of speech, is not harmful to society. Freedom of speech is self-moderating. Freedom of speech does not necessarily imply freedom to be heard. Those voices whose ideas are not worth hearing are very quickly weeded out. Nowhere is anyone forced to listen.

By limiting the freedom of speech, isn’t the governing body invading the individual liberties of the governed. Isn’t the governing body breaching its social contract to those it governs?

Here at Williams College we are a private institution. We are not bound by Federal laws such as the First Amendment. We are not bound by the precedent set by the Supreme Court which requires viewpoint neutrality in the funding body of a college or university.

Here at Williams College, the actions College Council took last year in de-recognizing the campus publication The Mad Cow are not technically illegal. But, aren’t these actions a breech of College Council’s social contract to us, the students? By violating its own bylaws, which explicitly state that College Council may not use its funding to influence the agenda of an organization, didn’t College Council further alienate itself from its role as governing body (1.3.III.B)?

But College Council did more than simply violate one of its own bylaws. College Council made the decision that if a group is offensive to individuals on campus, that group does not have the right to exist here at Williams.

I remember last winter, when Williams for Life distributed a newsletter to SU boxes. This newsletter was unpopular in some circles. According to this precedent, one could make a case that Williams for Life does not have the right to exist on campus.

I remember the words of CC rep John Phillips ’02 at the Council meeting where this precedent was set. John said that this decision allows a person to find a large group of atheist students and shut down all the religious groups on campus because they find religion “offensive.” On a broader scale, the decision allows any group of like-minded students to remove recognition and funding from any campus group. The implications of such a ruling are stunning.

College Council’s decision goes against the concept of freedom of speech. Yet we are a private college and, as such, are not bound by these laws. Shall we say that because we’re a private institution, that here at Williams College, we choose not to support the First Amendment? That we choose not to allow our students are organizations the freedom of expression?

A vote of No Confidence has been raised in College Council. In the coming weeks, all students on campus will be asked to vote on whether they have faith in our current College Council officers. A vote of No Confidence is the strongest action students may take against College Council and if successful, will result in the reelection of CC officers.

I urge all students, through their vote, to make a statement to College Council and to future College Councils. Make a statement that the actions CC took will not be tolerated at the College – Williams College does support freedom of speech. This is our chance as Williams College students to echo Voltaire’s statement, “I may not agree with what you say, but I will fight to the death to defend your right to say it.”