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A firsthand view of encampment at Williams/President Mandel's response

Updated: May 2

Free speech”, I read on Coleman Hughes’s Twitter feed while in Williamstown, “is never about protecting speech you agree with. It’s always about protecting speech you hate.” He was reflecting on the protests/encampments at Columbia University, his alma mater.


Hughes’s words closely reflect my thoughts as I walk across campus at our alma mater and see the encampments on the Williams Quad, what some once called Stetson Lawn.  Yes, I find the speech distasteful, students showing an ignorance of the broader context of the situation in Israel and Gaza, making no effort to understand the Israeli perspective.  Indeed, they seem content to reduce the Jewish state to a cardboard cut-out of settler colonial evil.


That said, protecting free speech means protecting even speech that is ignorant.


Unlike encampments at other colleges and universities, at least the Williams “encampers”, if you will, are being civil.  They are not disrupting classes or other campus events, not blocking access to any campus buildings, nor accosting any passersby.  


Indeed, when I was taking the picture that headlines this post, a woman from the encampment ran up to me and very politely asked if I was a professor. I answered that I was an alum and introduced myself. She refused to give her name and wanted reassurance that I wasn’t taking pictures of the students protesting, asking me to respect their privacy.


She was very earnest and civil. I don’t think she appreciated the irony in her request, requesting that I respect the privacy of students engaged in a public protest in a very public campus space.


President Maud S. Mandel has also written about the encampments, outlining a policy consistent with our principles.  On April 29, she e-mailed the campus when her office had “reason to believe that some Williams students may be considering” constructing an encampment.  She sent a second on May 1 after the encampment had been constructed.

In both messages, she offered strong support for free speech, provided it is not disruptive to other campus activities.  On April 29, she wrote:


students are entitled to assemble and voice their views and concerns. This includes through encampments, which in and of themselves do not violate any college rule…. We expect any student who uses their voice to do so within the broad guardrails of the Williams Code of Conduct. Actions that infringe on the rights of others may be subject to college disciplinary action.


I quibble with the modal verb, “may” and would have preferred “will”, but still President Mandel offers clear guidelines which she reaffirmed in yesterday’s missive.  


She concluded that message with a strong appeal for a respectful airing of opinions:


The Williams community is diverse, made up of thousands of people, each with our own identities, views and beliefs. Our college, and our democracy, thrive on open, respectful exchange across all of those differences. Whatever your opinion on events in Israel and Palestine, you are equally welcome here and equally encouraged to participate in our culture of exchange. I hope and believe that we can demonstrate ways to protest and debate without losing sight of our shared humanity.


Well said, Madam President. 


B. Daniel Blatt '85

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