We should be skeptical of the most recent College Council (CC) resolution, “A Resolution in Support of Free, Open, and Honest Dialogue at Williams College,” despite all its intentions. The resolution unnecessarily invites greater confusion about issues of speech on campus, and we all know such an issue will inevitably rise at any college where viewpoints clash both in and out of the classroom.
Before I continue, I would first like to commend Kevin Mercadante ’17 and Hanson Koota ’17 for the work they have done for the resolution. I cannot imagine the number of hours and energy needed to draft this document outside of the classroom. The resolution reaffirms the importance of speech and the uncomfortable dialogue which advances our education. It makes a proactive statement on the values we should consider as an institution. It helps call attention to how we should define our educational experiences. It serves to empower future conversations regarding dialogue on campus. All of these positives from the resolution seem resolutely true, and I have always voiced my support for open dialogue even in the face of uncomfortable, sensitive issues.
The potential benefits of the resolution are already aforementioned: it shows a commitment to “free, open and honest dialogue” at the College. However, the limited benefits are brought forth with just a few questions: Do we actually need a one-page resolution to help our community understand that we do not condone violence and threats of violence or our right to question each other to learn different viewpoints? Will a resolution simply change the culture and open a new “free exchange of ideas to promote critical and creative thinking?” Does it truly “arm” the right to freedom of speech on campus? A simple cost-benefit analysis of this resolution shows lots of potential (and tangibly limited) benefits at the cost of real confusion of what this resolution actually accomplishes.
On a technical level, the right to freedom of speech at a private institution of higher learning does not necessarily fall under the same premise of federal law or what we perceive to be a First Amendment right. Hence, when the resolution states it affirms “commitment to protecting every individual’s rights to speech and protest,” what are those rights? Of course, we must carefully consider each issue on a case-by-case basis; but having a resolution, which invites endless number of different interpretations in regards to issues of speech on campus, is just asking for chaos when an issue arises. It is difficult to see the obvious value added of a resolution that will not fully achieve its intention unless we have a cultural shift to get us engaged in productive conversations. The same people who refused to debate are not all of a sudden going to be influenced by a CC resolution. It also allows certain individual who want to purposefully trigger emotional responses in the community to defend is under the resolution’s words. Dialogue only helps when we actually do it by sitting down and being willing to engage with others. It does not occur by stating a theoretical model of what we want the College to be.
I also fear that the passage of this resolution will create the illusion that we have been proactive about it. That is, only until the next controversial speaker-event gets organized on campus (whether that is done through the proper Office of Student Life standards or not).
It would not seem unreasonable for the reader to be exasperated by this point: What other alternative is there for us to advance the goals as outlined in the resolution, opening statements by Kevin and Hanson, conversations throughout campus in the past year and comments made during the CC meeting? My answer is simple – go on Google and search “guidelines regarding protest and dissent” to find more concrete examples of how protest and dissent are dealt with at similar institutions of higher learning. This includes how speaking events can be booked, how protest and dissent may be defined under the type of event and how they will be reviewed in the community. One only needs to glance at these documents to see they achieve both the intentions of this CC resolution and tangible definitions on how to manage situations regarding “uncomfortable” dialogue, such as at Harvard Law School, New York University and Colorado College. I would rather see CC resolutions have some concrete goals in their end means, rather than doing what will make us feel good without obvious benefits.
Bum Shik Kim ’19 is a economics major from Palisdale Park, N.J. He lives in Thompson.