Students at Williams College Demand Freedom from Speech

 

Students at Williams College in Massachusetts are angry. According to a petition (PDF) signed by hundreds of students, the faculty is urging the college to enact “reckless and dangerous policies” that will “imperil marginalized students,” and amount to “discursive violence.”

What awful set of policies could Williams College faculty possibly be considering?

It is a version of the policy known as the “Chicago Statement.” Created in 2015 by a committee led by legal scholar Geoffrey Stone at the University of Chicago, the statement “recommit[s] the university to the principles of free, robust, and uninhibited debate.” It explicitly reminds students and faculty on campus that they have a “responsibility for maintaining a climate of mutual respect,” and that “concerns about civility and mutual respect can never be used as a justification for closing off discussion of ideas, however offensive or disagreeable those ideas may be.” The policies that accompany these principles not only protect political expression, but also prevent university administrators from restricting public expression to tiny areas of campus. Often misleadingly called “free speech zones.” This is a distressingly common practice at many universities, and it limits not just political speech but expression of all kinds.

As of today, 51 institutions — including Princeton, Purdue, and Johns Hopkins — have adopted their own versions of the Chicago Statement. Like the original, each statement protects the right of protest on campus, and clarifies that the right of protest does not include shout-downs, intimidation, or the use of violence to stop speakers — tactics that were used at Middlebury College, Claremont McKenna College, and most famously, the University of California, Berkeley in 2017.

Still, some students at highly selective liberal arts colleges like Williams are asking to be protected from offensive ideas rather than to be taught how to effectively engage them. In The Coddling of the American Mind: How Good Intentions and Bad Ideas Are Setting Up a Generation for Failure, Greg and his co-author, Jonathan Haidt, recommend adopting the Chicago Statement as a way to create wise universities. The statement protects freedom of speech, encourages viewpoint diversity, and fosters an understanding of the necessity of grappling with all kinds of ideas in order to reach better conclusions, make better arguments, and be better thinkers.

Civil libertarians have long understood that people are often more enamored with free speech in principle than in practice. “Free speech for me, but not for thee,” as the writer Nat Hentoff famously put it. Young people are especially prone to using this kind of thinking. In a 2017 Knight Foundation survey, 91% of high school students said that people should be allowed to express unpopular opinions, but in the same survey, less than half of them said that people should be able to say what they want if it offends others. “I believe in free speech except when it offends somebody” is, of course, the same thing as saying “I don’t really believe in free speech.” Speech which everyone finds agreeable is rarely the target of censorship.

What’s newer and more worrisome, however, are the signs that some students oppose free speech even in principle. “‘Free Speech,’ as a term,” the Williams petition claims, “has been co-opted by right-wing and liberal parties as a discursive cover for racism, xenophobia, sexism, homophobia, transphobia, ableism, and classism.” This assertion demonstrates startling ignorance of the crucial role of free speech in vindicating the rights of minorities throughout American history — from the civil rights movement to the gay rights movement. What young people have not learned is that the rights of the majority are protected by the vote. The First Amendment, on the other hand, exists specifically to protect the rights of those in the minority.

It is not uncommon for left-leaning professors and students to face censorship. Over the past several years, left-leaning professors have often run afoul of left-leaning students and administrators, as was the case with Bret Weinstein at Evergreen State University. And too often, right-wing outrage mobs come after left-leaning professors and students on the internet. Such was the case with Lisa Durden, who was fired from a college in New Jersey after appearing on Tucker Carlson’s show on Fox to defend a Black Lives Matter event, which was not even at her college, and which she did not even attend.

But in a democracy, we should not defend free speech rights only because we fear that our own “side” might be censored. We should all defend freedom of speech and academic freedom for their own sake, even if we can’t see how we would ever directly benefit from those protections. That is precisely the principled stance that the Chicago Statement takes –– in compelling and timeless language. And that stance protects the rights of students who view free speech and academic freedom with hostility to circulate petitions and make their case. Yet this principle is what hundreds of Williams students reject.

The best way to protect academic freedom and freedom of speech on campus is for every university in the country to adopt the Chicago Statement and drop remaining speech codes that restrict constitutionally protected student expression. Many speech codes employ vague language that allows for consequences based on purely subjective determinations; for example, prohibiting “offensive” speech, “intentionally divisive” speech, and even “inappropriately directed laughter.” These policies are often used as a bludgeon to punish any student or faculty member whose expression someone finds objectionable.

FIRE maintains a database that rates more than 450 American colleges and universities on their policies regarding freedom of expression. It is available to the public and you can look up your school. As year-end funding drives kick into high gear, the most powerful message alumni and parents can give is to tell universities that you only donate to schools that both practice and preach freedom of speech. 

This piece is co-authored by Pamela Paresky, FIRE’s Senior Scholar in Human Development and Psychology, and chief researcher and in-house editor for “The Coddling of the American Mind.”

Published in Education
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There are 10 comments.

  1. Contributor

    Greg Lukianoff: The best way to protect academic freedom and freedom of speech on campus is for every university in the country to adopt the Chicago Statement and drop remaining speech codes that restrict constitutionally protected student expression. Many speech codes employ vague language that allows for consequences based on purely subjective determinations; for example, prohibiting “offensive” speech, “intentionally divisive” speech, and even “inappropriately directed laughter.” These policies are often used as a bludgeon to punish any student or faculty member whose expression someone finds objectionable.

    I completely agree with this statement. Every effort to protect free speech, especially on campuses, is a victory for this country. I was especially delighted to hear that 51 institutions have adopted a version of the Chicago statement–wonderful!

    • #1
    • November 26, 2018 at 7:13 am
    • 7 likes
  2. Member

    Morning Greg,

    In your recent book you mention Marcuse and his article “Repressive Tolerance” https://www.marcuse.org/herbert/pubs/60spubs/65repressivetolerance.htm, however although you suggest that current students may not have read Marcuse’s work, they are parroting his ideas. You repeatedly say that the opponents to free speech are on the right and left. This suggested equivalence is false. Being 71 and seeing which students were shouting down speakers in the 60’s; the students preventing others from speaking were all from the left. Although you have several pages on Marcuse you do not show how this is part of a tempting leftist ideology. This leftist ideology (Marxism) has consistently has stripped humans of their individuality and lumped them into groups, the oppressors vs the oppressed. In Marxist ideology the group one belongs to defines his identity and his behavior. Marxist ideology breaks one of your main rules, us vs them thoughts. However breaking that rule is a powerful tool, by labeling your opponents, oppressors, you are restoring justice by attacking and repressing the oppressors. It redresses injustice by going after oppressors and those who go after oppressors are now heroic and doing good. So using Marcusian logic, one does noble deeds by shouting down oppressors (racist, and others), That you have not followed the effect of Marxist logic which has permeated academia seems to be a large gap in your analysis of this anti-free speech movement and the students who find this appropriate. The students of the 60’s have been the teachers of our current students. That the right has found that this tool can be used against the left is opportunistic and not an out growth of an ideology with a 60+ year history. The history of silencing opponents is plainly seen in USSR, China, Cuba and all of the Communist countries, that the academic left uses the same tactics is not surprising. In your post and in “The Coddling of the American Mind” you suggest that there is a right and left equivalence or that the leftist movements on campus are provoked by non-campus groups on the right; this conclusion seems far from descriptive of events or history.

    • #2
    • November 26, 2018 at 9:30 am
    • 1 like
  3. Member

    Look at the brighter side. Perhaps the treatment of Lisa Durden will cause some leftist leaning students to reexamine their positions and/or Lisa Durden may revise her opinion of leftist activism.

    In any event, I find it difficult to feel sorry for leftists who get eaten by their own.

    Just started reading “The Gulag Archipelago” and can’t help feeling that most of the purged party bosses got what they deserved.

    • #3
    • November 26, 2018 at 9:40 am
    • 2 likes
  4. Coolidge

    Susan Quinn (View Comment):
    I was especially delighted to hear that 51 institutions have adopted a version of the Chicago statement–wonderful!

    But at least one of them, Hopkins, just took 4 billion dollars in gift from Bill Gates. Is Microsoft really the defender of free speech? I have my doubts. He’s got particular views on education, that I know.

    • #4
    • November 26, 2018 at 9:53 am
    • Like
  5. Member

    Or better known as the ‘Time to Grow Up’ policy….

    • #5
    • November 26, 2018 at 10:23 am
    • 2 likes
  6. Member

    “has been co-opted by right-wing and liberal parties as a discursive cover for racism, xenophobia, sexism, homophobia, transphobia, ableism, and classism.”

    ED Hirsch, I think, said something like the knowledge of the unspoken is useful in understanding the spoken in many conversations. For some reason, the above statement makes no sense to me in reference to what the authors at Williams are warning against, but actually defend it. I think of the right as being accused of all the isms and phobias, and the left as those lobbing the accusations. If both groups are co-opting free speech concerning all those issues, that is the idea. 

    • #6
    • November 26, 2018 at 10:45 am
    • 1 like
  7. Contributor

    Flicker (View Comment):

    Susan Quinn (View Comment):
    I was especially delighted to hear that 51 institutions have adopted a version of the Chicago statement–wonderful!

    But at least one of them, Hopkins, just took 4 billion dollars in gift from Bill Gates. Is Microsoft really the defender of free speech? I have my doubts. He’s got particular views on education, that I know.

    Unless Bill Gates attaches illegitimate demands to the money, I see no problem.

    • #7
    • November 26, 2018 at 12:54 pm
    • Like
  8. Member

    Greg Lukianoff: What’s newer and more worrisome, however, are the signs that some students oppose free speech even in principle. “‘Free Speech,’ as a term,” the Williams petition claims, “has been co-opted by right-wing and liberal parties as a discursive cover for racism, xenophobia, sexism, homophobia, transphobia, ableism, and classism.” This assertion demonstrates startling ignorance of the crucial role of free speech in vindicating the rights of minorities throughout American history — from the civil rights movement to the gay rights movement. What young people have not learned is that the rights of the majority are protected by the vote. The First Amendment, on the other hand, exists specifically to protect the rights of those in the minority.

    The point of limiting free speech has always been to stifle and bully minorities in grossly offensive ways. Now the left wants to limit free speech to bully rightwing and classical liberal people. They might as well harass Tucker Carlson family. 

    The point of this censorship in the name of niceness isn’t about niceness. It’s about power and the human propensity to hate other people who are different. 

    • #8
    • November 26, 2018 at 1:53 pm
    • 1 like
  9. Member

    It would be good for those social media sites that claim to be for everyone to adopt the Chicago Statement, too.

    • #9
    • November 26, 2018 at 7:34 pm
    • 2 likes
  10. Coolidge

    Perhaps in some world the left fears censorship and right wing mobs, but it isnt this world. In this world the mobs are antifa and other marginalized white leeftists ignorami, and the silenced are conservatives and proponents of enlightenment values, western civilization and objective truth.

    • #10
    • November 28, 2018 at 3:59 pm
    • Like