On Free Speech and College Campuses

Summary to date: student group invites an apparent white supremacist to speak on campus at my alma mater, students react, alum start to react, college president cancels the appearance, now time for the Monday-morning quarterbacking

I've been thinking a lot about free speech (as a value, not as a legal right) and wanted to record some thoughts.

  • I believe that there are lines where inviting a speaker just ain't worth it. The most basic and obvious line relates to personal conduct - a speaker that sexually harasses students, threatens students, or refuses to answer audience questions may not be worth inviting.
  • I believe that the test to *stop* a speaker gets progressively higher through the following list:
    • Issuing an invitation for a mandatory event like a class
    • Issuing an invitation from college institutional leadership
    • Issuing an invitation from the college faculty/staff
    • Issuing an invitation from a student or student group
    • A student group canceling an invitation
    • The college canceling an invitation from faculty/staff or leadership
    • The college canceling an invitation from a student or student group
This means that I would push back on the college issuing an invitation to an objectionable speaker, but will give students more leeway to pursue their own speakers, and that the highest bar for action is canceling an invitation on behalf of a student or student group.

In other words, I believe that President Falk's decision merits the highest scrutiny, most particularly because it blocked an invitation from someone in the "aggrieved" class (in this case, black) and falk is himself White.

I agree with Falk that there's a line; for example, in inviting a flat-earther, psychic, or astrologist in any context except allowing students to interact with someone pushing psuedo-science. I'm not sure that this crosses it. Racism is a real social organism in today's world, and students deserve a chance to confront it as they decide how they will embark into the world

Zach Wood, the organizer, says (1):
To many, Derbyshire’s views might not be worth trying to thoroughly understand. To me, they are worth the intellectual investment of interrogating and dismantling principally because that is the only way in which it may ever be conclusively decided upon that his racist views are invalid.

I also think there are a variety of steps a college can take to make a lecture like this useful. It could hold trainings on productive confrontation, counter-programming on the same topic, or even feature the college president to speak for the Academy and repudiate the views of the speaker. I'm not sure which of these is the best option. For some students dealing with racism at Williams, a speaker like this is (at minimum) unhelpful, and possibly harmful. I am not a student that would be harmed, and would want to listen to the student group about the best way to mitigate that.

I also think that I might be wrong. A former professor wrote eloquently on the lack of education value in some statements, and I think he's correct that there's a line where speech becomes harassment and that Williams has no obligation to "support" racist speech, though I'm not sure that providing a venue constitutes true support.

I especially agree with this (2):
Given the unusual circumstances of this case, the lack of prior community consideration of the invitation and the short time frames involved, his choice was reasonable. 
If I was a black student looking to apply to colleges, articles about invited speakers like this one without counterbalance could well give me pause when deciding which colleges deserve my time and energy. I know racism exists; I lived it growing up, and there are better ways to engage it than by inviting speakers like this one.

Its very possible the harm to recruiting made the dis-invitation worth it; I don't know enough to say, and I think the disruption of such a speaker is worth consideration. For me, a one-time invite is worth the one-time disruption, but a weekly "today's racist" series would not be.

In general, the trend of censorship demanded by students on campus is a little disturbing, and deserves its own scrutiny (though this came from the college president) (3):
More to the point, the world is not a safe place. It is extremely dangerous, flawed, full of bloodshed and corruption. By sheltering ourselves from its harshness we are doing nothing meaningful to change it. If we are serious about confronting power we must throw ourselves into the danger and hurt that so many people have no choice but to live with. While self-care is necessary to sustain us in the long run, avoiding the darkness entirely is nothing more than a cop out.
Williams doesn't have to support racist speech, but if students seek to engage with it, what better place to be exposed than at a college, with professors and fellow students to help unpack a viewpoint?