College, BGLTU mishandle chalking conflict

Last Tuesday, as part of the celebration of Queer Pride Week, the Bisexual, Gay, Lesbian, Transgender Union (BGLTU) organized one of its semi-annual chalking campaigns. Chalking is a valuable way for students to confront other students with ideas that are not commonly discussed in day-to-day conversation; most of the chalkings done by the BGLTU have the purpose of making members of the community address topics that are normally not discussed at Williams. A small number of the chalkings, however, violated the standards that are necessary to have an intelligent conversation in an academic environment. Does drawing a phallus on the path leading to Sawyer Library contribute to the discourse of ideas?

It is the obligation of any student who chalks to make sure that his or her writings actually have a message. There is a difference between attempting to make people uncomfortable so that they might challenge their biases on a subject and writing offensive messages on sidewalks in front of the day care centers for professors’ children. Chalkings that anger the rest of the community defeat the purpose of the chalking campaign, because the discussion focuses on the chalkings themselves rather than the ideas supposedly contained therein. That a few chalkings could distract the entire community from the discussion that the rest of the chalkings were attempting to begin is a regrettable occurrence that the BGLTU should have done more to prevent.

The BGLTU, as organizer of the event, should answer the community’s concerns regarding the small fraction of chalkings that were inappropriate and counterproductive. Vulgar chalkings that do not directly address queer pride only serve to put the entire event in a bad light. Furthermore, the organizer of any chalking event owes it to both the College and to Williamstown to ensure that whatever is done respects the rest of the community. The handful of inappropriate chalkings, which leaders of the BGLTU have acknowledged were made by students affiliated with the organization, show a lack of regard for other members of the community.

More concerning, however, was the College’s decision to erase the chalkings without consulting with the BGLTU. Clearly the administration was put in a difficult situation. Time was a luxury that simply did not exist as pressure was mounting from members of both the College and Town communities. Regardless, the decision by the administration to erase any student speech is entirely inconsistent with its educational mission. An institution of higher education is distinct from any other setting in a crucial way: students at a school like Williams voluntarily join a community where they will be confronted with ideas that challenge popularly held beliefs – this is the very essence of higher education. As Mark Hopkins argued, the mind cannot be seen as a receptacle into which knowledge may be poured; but rather as a flame that must be fed and challenged. It is a dangerous precedent for the College to determine that one person’s expression is apparently void of content.

That a certain chalking appears to a particular student or administrator to be lacking of content does not mean that the institution that promotes the idea of “uncomfortable learning” can make a similar judgement. If the College is allowed to tell its students what ideas have expressive content and what ideas do not, it places the institution on a dangerous slippery slope – even if it seems unlikely that the slope will lead anywhere at Williams in the near future. If the administration can erase chalkings made by students, why can’t it pull issues of The Mad Cow off distribution racks if inflammatory statements are made in that publication?

A far better solution would have been for the community on its own to confront the BGLTU about the chalkings. Offended community members could have e-mailed the BGLTU expressing their concern, and we would hope that the organization would have either agreed to remove the few inappropriate chalkings or explained to the community the ideas that were being expressed and, apparently, missed. Discussion in the community, rather than a decision made in Hopkins Hall, would have hopefully led to a solution that was more consistent with the educational mission of the College.

As journalists, we have never run into a situation where the administration has tried to censor us in any way, and we are confident that the incident involving the BGLTU chalkings is in no way indicative of the administration’s stance on freedom of speech issues. That aside, the College should consider the implications of its actions. Is the community comfortable with members of the administration deciding that a particular statement has “no content?” The College must tread carefully when it makes similar decisions in the future.