A bad week for free speech

It’s been a bad week for liberal values at Williams. Free expression, one of the quintessential liberal values on which institutions such as Williams are founded, has been threatened by opponents of the admittedly inflammatory David Horowitz ad. While it is understandable why students would feel threatened by Horowitz’s overblown and tension-raising rhetoric, the proper response is not to call for an apology from the Record and a donation of the profits from the ad to charity, but to challenge Horowitz in the free forum of ideas.

The ad which David Horowitz placed is undoubtedly one-sided and supremely unfair to Arabs and Muslims at Williams and beyond. Despite the fact that the governments of those countries surrounding Israel do to a great extent encourage anti-Semitism – Egyptian state television’s decision to run a 41 part series on the “Protocols of the Elders of Zion” serves as a prime example – it was illiberal and wrong of Horowitz to attack all Muslims and Arabs in such a way. Unfortunately, MinCo and other opponents of Horowitz have elected not to rhetorically destroy the ad (which could be done quite easily), but to question whether it should have been run by the Record at all. This is a dangerous development.

Speech, even of the hateful and idiotic kind, has to be protected. If we believe as a society and a college – and I think we do – that a free marketplace of ideas is superior to a stultified and biased discussion, then we have to let people say whatever they want, even if it is offensive or hurtful to some. After all, what serious idea won’t prove offensive to somebody? The New Deal was offensive to moneyed Republicans, and the Reagan Revolution was offensive to liberal Democrats – does this mean that FDR and Reagan had an obligation to keep their ideas under wraps? Of course not. If an idea’s lack of offensiveness is the standard on which it may be judged acceptable, we would very quickly lose the dynamism and energy so essential to a real debate.

The only public thoughts expressed would be so shockingly bland and mindlessly polite as to reduce enthusiasm for self-government and the democratic process of a free dialogue. Instead, the standard that we ought to invoke when considering whether speech can be prohibited is that articulated by Oliver Wendell Holmes in 1919: a “clear and present danger” to the public good, like falsely shouting “fire!” in a crowded theater. Everything else, for the sake of that liberal atmosphere which this College proposes to nurture, must be allowed.

That’s why it is disconcerting to see intelligent, well-respected and well-liked campus leaders like Rory Kramer ’03 and Shehryar Qureshi ’04 attempting to force the Record, through student petition and College Council motion, to donate profits from the ad to charity and to publicly renounce their action. It has the distinct scent of mob rule: an attempt to force an unpopular minority – the Record editorial board – to recant its actions (and possibly opinions) through the mechanisms of democracy. If anything, MinCo should be standing up for the editorial board, since right now they are the most disliked and vulnerable minority on campus.

That, of course, is an unlikely occurrence. Instead, I have a proposal which I hope MinCo and other opponents of the ad will accept, and which might serve as a sane solution to what could soon spiral into a Mad Cow-style fiasco. People who viscerally disagree with Horowitz should oppose him by offering up their ideas in the public forum. Whether by writing opinion pieces, letters to the Editor, or taking out an advertisement of their own, those who think Horowitz is horribly wrong could fight what they perceive as racism not by changing the standard of free speech, but by hammering his assertions into the ground.

I hope this will happen. Unfortunately, there are very good reasons to doubt that it will. If the campus is so angry as to preclude rational thought, the Record may be forced to apologize and give away its profits, and we will be one step closer to tyranny of the masses, and one step further away from Holmes’ sensible and appropriate standard on free speech.

So, all in all, it’s been a bad week for this liberal institution. Free expression, even of stupid and unfair thoughts – the allowance of which, after all, is the ultimate standard against which we measure our tolerance of others’ ideas – has been attacked. Hopefully, people will come to their senses, and oppose ideas they hate not by trying to prohibit them, but by engaging them, debating them, and talking about them. If that happens, next week at Williams will be a lot better.