Standing with the free exchange of ideas: Understanding the Faculty Petition and the Chicago Statement

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We welcome the discussion of how the College should best support freedom of inquiry as part of its educational mission and applaud President Mandel’s formal response to the faculty petition by her creation of an ad hoc committee on speakers, inquiry and inclusion. Here, in the interests of full clarity and fair consideration of the faculty petition, we wish to comment on some points that have arisen in discussions about the Chicago Statement. 

This statement is best understood not as “a series of policies regarding the disinvitation of speakers” but as a set of principles for institutions of higher education. These principles include: (1) As part of its educational mission, the College has a fundamental commitment to freedom of inquiry, including the consideration of a diverse set of views; (2) to fulfill that mission, the College has a responsibility to protect and promote the free expression of its members. This means that community members have the right to present, criticize and contest views on campus but that nobody can prevent others from expressing their views; and (3) the College can and should set rules and restrict expression that violates the law, defames a specific individual, constitutes a genuine threat or harassment or is otherwise incompatible with the functioning of the College.   

To date, these principles have been adopted, in a variety of forms, by 55 institutions including Amherst, Brandeis, Colgate, Columbia, Georgetown and Princeton. Such institutions are as committed to social justice, fairness and inclusion as is Williams College, and the adoption of these principles has not, to our knowledge, led to an increase in hate speech on campus. Furthermore, there is a strong argument that free speech – including civil protest – is the best remedy against hate speech. The free exchange of ideas has traditionally been a powerful weapon against oppression; without it there would have been no religious freedom, no civil rights movement, no women’s liberation movement and no gay rights movement, to name but a few of its liberating feats. 

Because of today’s strongly polarized political environment, some have lost sight of the deep historical connection between freedom of expression and the fight against injustice. However, it is unfair to characterize the faculty petition as part of or a capitulation to the right-wing assault on the academy. Rather, freedom of expression is part of the foundation of liberal democracy; to let it be undermined by right-wing rhetoric would be the real capitulation. In the same vein, to reject freedom of expression as an effective tool to fight oppression is to surrender the politics of persuasion to the politics of power. In so doing, the failure to protect the free expression of minority opinion simply ensures the persistence of oppression – domination of the powerful over the powerless.  

Furthermore, the proposed consideration of the Chicago Statement does not extend to all of the other characteristics of the University of Chicago, such as their letter to first-year students about safe spaces and trigger warnings (which many conflate with the Chicago Statement). There are in fact a variety of statements on freedom of expression that other institutions have adopted, and the College is free to craft its own. At its essence, the faculty petition proposes that the Williams statement embody the Chicago principles described above.   

The specific question of how speakers are invited to the College will be discussed by the ad hoc committee. Neither the faculty petition nor the Chicago Statement takes a position on this question, nor do they discourage an institutional discussion of this important issue. However, a common claim is that those who speak at the College are given a privileged platform that confers institutional prestige. This constitutes, in our opinion, a simplistic and slippery argument. Taken to its logical conclusion, this implies that every speaker at the College, and every message spoken, must somehow be endorsed by the institution as a whole.  

This reflects a misunderstanding about the nature of the College: it is primarily a community whose members are engaged in a set of intellectual, artistic and creative endeavors to explore the world in which we live and to understand our place in it. As an institution of higher education, the College is dedicated to helping students learn how to think for themselves rather than simply accept received or popular opinions. As a whole, the institution provides an environment for these endeavors. It does not, however, aim to take an institutional position on individual matters of inquiry by those members. From this perspective, what is at stake is how the institution supports members of the community to freely engage with views from the world outside of the College.   

As recently proclaimed by President Mandel, the College is committed to “the unfettered exchange of diverse points of view.” We believe that adopting the Chicago principles is the best way to affirm this commitment, and we look forward to continued discussion on this important issue. 

Steve Gerrard has been a professor of philosophy at the College since 1992. David Gürçay-Morris ’96 has been an associate professor of theatre at the College since 2007. Luana Maroja has been an associate professor of biology at the College since 2010.