Free speech resolution passes

On April 18, College Council (CC) issued a resolution in support of “free, open and honest dialogue” at the College. Written by 2017 CC representatives Kevin Mercadante ’17 and Hanson Koota ’17, the resolution passed by a vote of 16-3-1.

The goal of the resolution, according to its authors, is to encourage a campus climate where members of the community can feel comfortable expressing their views, even if they are outside of the mainstream, as long as they are not hateful in their nature. They also hope to ensure that protestors feel comfortable standing up against other community members and visitors with whom they disagree. This free and open exchange of ideas, they believe, is integral to fostering an inclusive and intellectual culture at an elite liberal arts institution such as the College.

“The resolution stems from months of thought about where Williams stands in the increasingly hostile world of discourse that surrounds us,” Mercadante said. “Hanson and I believe that one of the defining characteristics of our education at Williams is the platform that Williams provided us to engage in a multitude of viewpoints: the good, the bad and the ugly.”

Koota agreed that the acceptance of different viewpoints is crucial to the College, explaining that students should be exposed to a variety of ideas, not just the ones with which they explicitly agree. “It is essential that our community is one that is receptive of all ideologies and is one that encourages the exchange of ideas,” he said.

Some CC members, however, expressed concerns that the statements in the resolution were superfluous because free speech is already a well-known right formulated in the Constitution of the United States. As such, they were skeptical that the resolution would accomplish anything concrete.

“I don’t know if we need this,” CC representative Tony Fitzgerald ’18, who ultimately abstained from voting on the resolution, said. “I feel like the Founding Fathers nailed this in the First Amendment in about five lines.” Fitzgerald also expressed concern that this resolution might be seen as a dog whistle for recent campus speech controversies involving white-supremacist speakers and views.

Others in attendance were concerned that students could appropriate the purpose of this resolution and use it as grounds for engaging in hateful speech or violent actions.

“I personally think that there should be very clear and pertinent definitions of hateful speech in this document when it is released,” Berline Osirus ’20 said.

She and others believed that students or groups with hateful messages that might not necessarily be self-aware of their damaging speech could cite this resolution as giving them the right say whatever they want.

After debating the language of the resolution and its potential implications, CC settled on stating that CC “rejects the use of violence or threats of violence to discourage speech” in its final version. This clause, they hope, will eliminate the possibility that the resolution is misused for hateful speech.

Michael Ludwig ’20, who co-sponsored the resolution, argued that, in addition to reinforcing free speech on campus, the College should also serve as a role model for other educational institutions in advocating free speech for its clubs and organizations.

“Speech is essentially what has allowed groups to speak,” Ludwig said.

Representatives hope that the final resolution, which can be accessed on CC’s website, will reinforce the value of free speech on campus, emphasizing the importance of open dialogue and protest while condemning hateful and violent speech of any kind.