On free speech and uncomfortable learning

October 23, 2015 by Eva Fourakis, Editor-in-Chief

Last Wednesday, we published an editorial titled “Uncomfortable or damaging?: Debating the merits and detriments of harmful speech on campus.” Since the publication of this editorial, students, alumni and the national media have criticized the Record for arguing in favor of limitations on free speech. I believe this is a valid criticism. Although it was not our intent, I understand and accept that our editorial, as written, does advocate for limited free speech, and that was a mistake.

This letter is not a result of backlash but rather a result of the discussions that have occurred amidst that backlash. While we intended to critique the initial choice of inviting Suzanne Venker to campus, we did not intend to critique the right of Uncomfortable Learning to bring her to campus or the right of her ideas to be present here. Each time we silence one perspective or label it as “dangerous,” we compromise the freedom of speech. A newspaper – campus or otherwise – should never advocate to limit speech.

Students should not face restrictions in terms of the speakers they bring to campus, provided of course that these speakers do not participate in forms of legally recognized hate speech. Students have an equal right to protest these decisions and speakers. While it is my hope, and our suggestion in the editorial, that students who invite speakers to campus consider the educational value of these speakers, as well as the potential for their speech to discriminate against members of our community, it is ultimately up to the respective students to decide whether to invite a speaker to campus. Imposing limits based on a majority-defined notion of educationally-valuable or harmful ideas is a dangerous step to take.

We always welcome critique of our editorials, as their purpose is to further conversation regarding relevant issues. I am grateful for the conversations that occurred after the publication of the editorial, for it is through conversations like these that we improve as a paper and as a community.

Eva Fourakis
Editor-in-chief, The Williams Record

{ 29 comments… read them below or add one }

James Bishop October 23, 2015 at 10:33 am

I respect Eva Fourakis’ comments on the original editorial, and accept them as sincere.

Well done Williams.

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Daniel L. Schmutter October 23, 2015 at 12:05 pm

Eva –

Thank you for your thoughtful letter re-examining the paper’s initial thoughts on this important topic.

One important point. There is no such thing as “legally recognized hate speech.” Speech that some consider hate speech bears the same constitutional protection as any other type of speech. That’s a feature, not a bug, as they say. It is precisely the speech we find most offensive that requires rigorous legal protection. No one tries to suppress speech they like.

Thanks again.

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Andy Grewal '02 October 23, 2015 at 4:21 pm

I will echo Mr. Schmutter’s comments. Even hateful or insipid commentary qualifies for protection under the First Amendment, whose principles private colleges generally attempt to respect.

Of course, it’s rare that hateful or insipid views will further academic discourse or provide any educational value. But I can see various circumstances where it may be appropriate to invite a speaker who holds such views. I do not consider the views of anti-vaxxers in any way “intellectual,” but if I were a budding doctor or someone who might otherwise interact with the anti-vax crowd, I would benefit from knowing what, exactly, my future patient is thinking or has learnt when s/he rejects vaccinations for children. Additionally, it would be consistent with the mission of higher education to take what’s being said by the anti-vax crowd and subject their arguments to rigorous scrutiny.

I would say the same things about hateful speech. If, god forbid, the KKK enjoys a resurgence, I would want students to be aware of their arguments so that in future interactions with their fellow citizens, students/graduates would be able to repel and debunk the KKK’s views.

I’m also generally concerned about the risks of carving out whatever is considered “hateful” speech. From a quick scan of the Williams course catalog, it appears that the faculty leans heavily and uniformly in one ideological direction. Consequently, what the Purple Bubble classifies as “hateful” may differ greatly from what the rest of the world considers hateful. There is thus a risk of further isolation if the community decides that any viewpoint it considers hateful or violates its “safe space” cannot be expressed.

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jehanne October 23, 2015 at 7:38 pm

I appreciate Williams Record for airing varied points of view on this subject. This carries merit to the reader does it not? — Do we not all have the same objective, to work towards the common good and to seek out moral truth? That is exactly why an open forum such as this is beneficial to those causes.

So I ask those students who demanded this speaker not be given a voice on campus, why? Is it not clear that if your views or beliefs are in the right, then having a public debate over them is the perfect vehicle to advance your causes? An informed citizen is one who becomes informed by considering all facts and ideas. With that kind of person you have a much stronger advocate. So if you are right then you have nothing to fear from having your views challenged. Might does not necessarily make right.

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John C. Drew, Ph.D. October 23, 2015 at 9:17 pm

One of the most annoying things about being a political scientist at Williams College was dealing with liberals/leftists who thought they knew more about American government than me, simply because I was a registered Republican. There is, of course, no such thing as legally recognized hate speech. This link will help the folks at the Williams Record better understand the protections we enjoy due to the First Amendment. https://www.washingtonpost.com/news/volokh-conspiracy/wp/2015/05/07/no-theres-no-hate-speech-exception-to-the-first-amendment/

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John McAdams October 23, 2015 at 9:59 pm

>>> While it is my hope, and our suggestion in the editorial, that students who invite speakers to campus consider the educational value of these speakers, as well as the potential for their speech to discriminate against members of our community <<<

This really isn't much better. Speech does not discriminate — at least a public speech on a college campus does not. What it might do is run afoul of intolerant politically correct attitudes. To call unpopular speech "discriminatory" shows you have not really reconsidered the original, intolerant editorial.

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Louis October 24, 2015 at 3:48 am

This editorial board makes my head hurt. You have no business telling people what they should consider when scheduling speakers. If a group wants a speaker, there should not be a lot of restrictions. If you don’t think the speaker has value then don’t attend the speech. The speaker should NOT be protested before they walk in the door and the group who invited them should not be mistreated or bullied. It is that simple.

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DavidB October 24, 2015 at 2:07 pm

“…forms of legally recognized hate speech”

And you are the editor-in-chief? Seriously?

Perhaps what you meant to say was “… forms of legally recognized hate speech I would like to see”.

Meh.

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Deon April 15, 2016 at 8:06 pm

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John Yossarian October 26, 2015 at 11:41 am

“The university is a vast public utility which turns out future workers in today’s vineyard, the military-industrial complex. They’ve got to be processed in the most efficient way to see to it that they have the fewest dissenting opinions, that they have just those characteristics which are wholly incompatible with being an intellectual. This is a real internal psychological contradiction. People have to suppress the very questions which reading books raises.”
― Mario Savio, in 1965, leading the student free speech revolt at UC Berkeley.

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Mickey Langan October 26, 2015 at 10:13 pm

I despair of our young people. The editor-in-chief of a student newspaper should be among the best educated and most astute of the student body. Instead, they visit someone upon us who, years ago, would not have passed high school civics.

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Anon October 28, 2015 at 12:19 am

Eva,

I would point out that you only half reverse your original position — namely, that there is such a thing as “legally recognized hate speech”. There isnt. Interesting selective civics from the editor in chief of one of the oldest “independent” newspapers in the country. Lol.

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Leeada Johnson October 29, 2015 at 3:13 am

You realize that this irrational apology, for your previous irrational editorial, only emphasizes your irrevocable decerebracy, and that you show no signs of intelligent life, or of ever understanding the 1st Amendment, freedom of thought, and freedom of expression.
What a spectacular proof that you have no place in an institution of Higher education, and that you should be a human banished to the Planet of the Apes.

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John Lee October 30, 2015 at 10:41 pm

“forms of legally recognized hate speech?????”

You guys made this up to cover up your small mindedness. So are you going to be the
judge what is hate speech? Give us a break.

Don’t you people know the Constitution?????

I think you people need to find and hide in your own safe space to protect the students and alumni from your ridiculous thinking. I feel sad for you. In less than four years, it’s obvious that your ill-prepared for the reality of life.

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Paul K. Ogden November 2, 2015 at 11:32 am

There is no such thing as “legally recognized hate speech.” We really need to do a better job of teaching high school civics.

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Mike Millson November 2, 2015 at 11:52 am

“legally recognized hate speech” What are you talking about? Are you making this up as you go. Why are liberals so afraid to hear ideas that differ from their own?

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BuenaVista November 3, 2015 at 8:09 am

Derision is too facile a response to this faux-sage, chin-stroking invention of something called ‘legally recognized hate speech.’

Oh, your phone is ringing. Your parents want their $275K back.

Also, I’m offended by the comments here. You could have provided a trigger warning, at least. Direct me to a safe space, please. Or at least the free speech zone.

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That’s a sharp way of thinking about it.

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S.M. Stirling November 3, 2015 at 3:46 pm

Ah… there is no such thing as “legally recognized hate speech”.

The First Amendment is intended to protect the speech we consider hateful, intolerable, hurtful, demeaning and generally rotten. Nice consensus-respecting speech doesn’t need it.

What it protects is the right to — ceaselessly, 24/7 — throw doggy-doo in your face and pile coals of fire on your head and make your brain want to EXPLOOOOOODE.

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