Students, faculty discuss free speech

Rebecca Tauber and Samuel Wolf

On Oct. 29, several members of the faculty sent out a petition calling for the College to adopt the Chicago Statement on Principles of Free Expression, originally released by the University of Chicago in July 2012. The statement, which addresses the occasional disinvitation of controversial speakers, claims that almost all speakers should be permitted to address an institution of higher education, citing the importance of free speech. The university, the statement said, “is committed to the principle that it may not restrict debate or deliberation because the ideas put forth are thought to be offensive, unwise, immoral, or wrong-headed.” However, the statement also made exceptions for banning harassment or defamation. Since 2012, 45 colleges and universities have adopted the statement.

While many faculty members collaborated on the petition in support of the Chicago Principles, the three names associated with the petition were Associate Professor of Biology Luana Maroja, Associate Professor of Theatre David Gürçay-Morris and Professor of Philosophy Steven Gerrard. The petition took a strong stance in favor of the Chicago Statement and free speech on campus in general. “While there is an understandable desire to protect our students from speech they find offensive, doing so risks shutting down legitimate dialogue and failing to prepare our students to deal effectively with a diversity of opinions, including views they might vehemently disagree with,” the petition stated. The creators of the petition hoped that, if the petition gained sufficient signatures, it could gain the attention of President Maud Mandel and ultimately lead to the College’s adoption of the Chicago Principles.

In a blog post titled “Freedom of speech at Williams College: are the walls closing in?” Maroja cited a roundtable featuring religious scholar, Reza Aslan, as a catalyst for the petition. During this roundtable, Aslan’s view on freedom of expression concerned her. She wrote that Aslan “started by bragging that he had once been disinvited from another venue, proceeding to say that anything that offended him should not be allowed, and finally asserting that ‘only factual talks’ should ever be allowed in campus.” Maroja also expressed concern with student reception of his speech. “This nonsense was met with intense student applause,” she wrote. “It was appalling.”

Former President Adam Falk’s disinvitation of John Derbyshire in 2016 also weighed heavily on the Chicago Statement debate. Derbyshire, who has described himself as alt-right and who once opined that America would be better off if women were unable to vote, was invited to campus by the group Uncomfortable Learning. President Falk ultimately canceled his speech. “Many of his expressions clearly constitute hate speech, and we will not promote such speech on this campus or in our community,” he said. 

Gürçay-Morris, another one of the petition’s creators, was guided by his belief that the free exchange of ideas and freedom from censorship is essential for any institution of higher education. “I don’t know how to make art without the basic assumption of those things, and I definitely don’t know how to teach art … if there isn’t a basic assumption of freedom of expression to do things, to fail things, to do better next time,” he said. For Gürçay-Morris, the ability of some people to disinvite speakers who oppose their beliefs betrayed those principles. He also emphasized that the initial creation of the petition was intended to spur a dialogue rather than to push an agenda. For Gerrard, another creator, the petition was part of a broader national movement. “My goals in helping to write the petition were to express solidarity with our colleagues in colleges and universities across the country, especially in the South, who face censorship of their views,” he said. 

According to Gürçay-Morris, the petition was originally sent to tenured faculty, with the purpose of not placing undue pressure on untenured faculty to sign it and with the expectation to slowly broaden the discussion. However, many students felt that the petition was being withheld from them, a viewpoint which Gürçay-Morris rejected. “There was nothing about trying to keep it secret or only to the faculty,” he said. “We were trying to do the most bottom-up grassroots thing ever.” The petition’s creators were taken aback by its quick spread, as the petition gained over 100 signatures from both tenured and untenured faculty by Nov. 5. With this proliferation came a misconception that achieving a certain number of signatures would cause the principles to be adopted, whereas the petition did not have that power and was originally meant as a conversation-starter.

Shortly after its introduction, the petition generated controversy amongst faculty, staff and students, and was discussed at a forum on Nov. 11, which demonstrated the range of ractions and pushback on the petition and Statement. 

Gail Newman, professor of German, who spoke with faculty against the petition and reached out to supporting students organizing against the petition, took issue with the language and divisive nature of the Chicago Statement. “The Statement … ignores the fact that both of these concepts [‘freedom’ and ‘civility’] have been used over and over again to shut down legitimate calls for conditions of safety that would allow the voices of those who haven’t been heard to come forward,” she said.

Senior Lecturer in Psychology Susan Engel expressed mixed feelings on the Chicago Statement and advocated for a “a real conversation, not a debate.” Engel argued that the College community has many questions to ask regarding speech that extends beyond the Statement itself. “What processes do we use to decide who will speak (or perform, or show their work) at Williams?” she asked. 

Mark Reinhardt, professor of political science and American studies, sent an email to the entire faculty urging his colleagues to withdraw their signature or not sign the petition. He expressed problems with the petition’s format, larger messages and implications of the Chicago Statement. “I know there is among us a wide range of views, rooted in part in very different experiences of the College and American society,” he wrote. “Given that diversity, I propose that any forums be approached as opportunities to consider campus discourse in the broadest possible terms, and not merely as occasions for endorsing or opposing one particular, predetermined framing of our circumstances, challenges and prospects.”

Joy James, professor of political science and Africana studies, published an article in The Feminist Wire in which she argued against the Chicago Statement and outlined its implications for the College community. “The Chicago Statement ‘free speech’ campaign accumulates power for elites and enables their predatory desires and aggressions against marginalized groups,” James wrote. “People of color are window dressing for a Statement that seeks to legitimize hate speech.”

James linked this view to a previously published article in The Feminist Wire by Kai Green, assistant professor of women’s, gender and sexuality studies, and Kimberly Love, assistant professor of English, which discusses the relationship between academia and injustice. Green and Love detailed the challenges of being Black queer feminists in both higher education and Williamstown, portraying many of the issues raised by those against the petition. “We are not safe because we are Black radical thinkers and professors who refuse to wait for the right time to point out the anti-Black, transphobic, xenophobic and the list goes on … wrongs of this time,” Green and Love wrote. 

Both Green and Love expressed solidarity with James and a group of students who argued against the petition. Student pushback took the form of a counter-petition, which circulated on Nov. 15 and was linked to in an email from College Council in addition with the faculty petition. The student petition quickly gained 381 student and alum signatures and was published in The Feminist Wire a few days after circulation.

 The students who worked on the response then created the Coalition Against Racist Education Now (CARE Now). “The student letter that surfaced in response to the faculty petition was co-authored and edited by over 20 students from a wide range of identities and positionalities,” CARE Now members said in an op-ed submitted to the Record. “It was, above all, a democratic, grassroots project from start to finish.” When approached by the Record for comment, CARE Now members chose not to comment beyond the student petition and their op-ed.

The student-led petition rejected the Chicago Statement and expressed anger with the faculty petition; the students were frustrated by their lack of voice in the conversation. “Not allowing students into the discussion and circulation of the petition limits the potential for conflicting viewpoints and is thus completely antithetical to a free speech premise,” they wrote. 

Like the faculty members who pushed back against the original petition, the students took issue with the language of the conversation. “‘Free Speech,’ as a term, has been co-opted by right-wing and liberal parties as a discursive cover for racism, xenophobia, sexism, anti-Semitism, homophobia, transphobia, ableism and classism,” the student petition said. “The creation of this petition at Williams cannot be separated from those
dehumanizing associations.”

Furthermore, the petition questioned the equality of the free speech debate at large. “Ultimately, power determines whose speech is given space and taken seriously,” the students wrote. “Giving one person space [and] time to speak on campus means that another person is not given that space [and] time.”

The petition urged the College community to reconsider the terms of the free speech conversation. “Why can’t we actually have a campus-wide discussion on this issue, one that is not dominated by conservative and white faculty? Can this instead be an opportunity to take a critical eye to how free speech is constructed and weaponized at institutions like Williams?” the students asked. The petition concluded with criticism of the college community as a whole, bringing up many of the problems raised at the Black Student Union Town Hall on Nov. 14. “Williams College continually fails to support its most marginalized students, staff and faculty members, despite claiming to have a deep commitment to ‘diversity,’” it said. 

The controversy surrounding the petition’s adoption also gained a level of national attention. On Nov. 29, a conservative blog called Ricochet published an article claiming that the debate exemplified a culture of censorship on college campuses. Another article from Powerline, which focused on the student petition against the Chicago Principles, saw the petition as emblematic of an ideology that rejected the concept of objective truth.
“[N]o one should send their kids to Williams,” it concluded. 

In response to the variety of petitions, articles and responses regarding the Chicago Statement and the College’s policies, Mandel sent an email to faculty, students and staff taking action to continue the conversation. “I’ve decided to charge an ad hoc committee with exploring various points of view and making recommendations for how [the College] can ensure an educational environment that’s both intellectually open and inclusive,” she wrote. Mandel explained that she will counsel with “leaders of faculty, staff and student governance” when forming the committee, which will “contribute to the development of guidelines appropriate for [the College].” 

In their op-ed to the Record, CARE Now responded to the formation of the committee, contesting the structure and effectiveness of that format in taking action and listening to student voices.

Mandel hopes to create the committee by the end of this calendar year and plans to update the College community about the committee in early 2019 after its formation.