Williams College has spent months awaiting word from the “Ad Hoc Committee on Inquiry and Inclusion,” which was tasked with defining the boundary that separates free expression from incitement. The committee was considering what Williams should do about controversial outside speakers, like John Derbyshire, whose invitation to speak there was withdrawn in 2016. Derbyshire had been bounced from the National Review in 2012 over a column he wrote for Taki’s Magazine, which dripped with race prejudice. Zachary Wood, an African-American student who headed the club that invited Derbyshire, spoke for many critics of the decision to disinvite Derbyshire: “We should hear what he has to say, and take him to task for it.”
Two years later, over one hundred faculty members at Williams signed a petition urging their colleagues to adopt the “Chicago Statement,” which affirms “that debate or deliberation may not be suppressed because the ideas put forth are thought by some or even by most members of the University community to be offensive, unwise, immoral, or wrong-headed.” They were met by protests and a counter-petition, signed by over 350 students, which asserted that free speech, “as a term, has been co-opted . . . as a discursive cover for racism, xenophobia, sexism” and other injustices. President Maud Mandel struck the Ad Hoc Committee on Inquiry and Inclusion to recommend a “set of speaker guidelines” that would balance the college’s commitment to free inquiry with its commitment to “inclusion.”
It was hard to guess what kind of report the committee would produce. Would it please the faculty members who favored the Chicago Statement, or the students, backed by other faculty members, who considered the Statement an implicitly racist affront?
The committee’s report, which came out earlier this summer is a pleasant surprise.
First, the committee presented concerned students with a menu of ways to handle controversial speakers. One, “disallowing/disinviting speakers,” is unacceptable from the standpoint of free speech, but only 20 percent of student respondents to the committee’s survey selected that as their preferred way of dealing with controversy. Another 12 percent opted for protesting or organizing counter-events, neither of which contradicts the strictest free speech principles. And the overwhelming majority, 68 percent, supported organizing events in such a way that the speaker’s opinion can be challenged—for example, by making sure there is enough time for questions. In short, the views of activists notwithstanding, most students at Williams prefer to deal with controversy without undermining free speech on campus.
The second piece of good news concerns the committee’s recommendations. Critics point out that the committee did not recommend adopting the Chicago Statement. But I suspect that was primarily because the Chicago Statement isn’t explicit about what colleges and universities can do, short of restricting speech, to address hateful speech when it occurs. Whether an institution should issue a statement or take any action when a student group invites a Holocaust denier to campus may be a matter of dispute. But I don’t think that the committee is, as one commentator claims, turning “away from principles protecting free speech” when it that says that Williams should respond to hateful speech.
The two most “free speech absolutist” books to appear in recent years, Free Speech on Campus by Erwin Chemerinsky and Howard Gillman, and Hate: Why We Should Resist it with Free Speech, Not Censorship, by Nadine Strossen, both attend to the ways in which the dignity of all students can be enhanced when hateful speech is met by counter-speech. The Williams committee is too paternalistic in the suggestions it makes for “facilitating protest,” but the basic thrust of its report is that there are means short of restricting free speech that college leaders should use to combat the foul prejudices that sometimes get aired in service to freedom of discussion and inquiry.
One might prefer, as I do, the Chicago Statement because it neatly states the principles of free expression and inquiry that should be the foremost concerns of our colleges and universities. But one can hardly be upset at the committee for choosing its own way, which includes recommending that Williams adhere to the guidelines on-campus speakers suggested by the American Association of University Professors. “Only in the most extraordinary circumstances can strong evidence of imminent danger,” those guidelines say, “justify rescinding an invitation to an outside speaker.” That recommendation represents a stronger commitment to campus free speech than Williams’s present guidelines make.
There is a long way to go, and we’ll have to see how the College acts on the recommendations, which President Mandel has accepted “in full.” But the idea that we should now be worried because Williams College—Williams College!—may fall half a hair short of the Chicago Statement sacrifices the good in pursuit of the perfect. The results of this inquiry suggest that free speech advocates can make progress even in the leftmost outposts of left-liberal higher education.