Serous threats to free speech at our alma mater first emerged during the tenure of the college's immediate past president.
In February 2022, while professing support for free speech, Adam Falk cancelled a speech by John Derbyshire:
Free speech is a value I hold in extremely high regard. The college has a very long history of encouraging the expression of a range of viewpoints and giving voice to widely differing opinions. We have said we wouldn't cancel speakers or prevent the expression of views except in the most extreme circumstances. In other words: There's a line somewhere, but in our history of hosting events and speeches of all kinds, we hadn't yet found it.
We've found the line. Derbyshire, in my opinion, is on the other side of it. Many of his expressions clearly constitute hate speech, and we will not promote such speech on this campus or in our community.
"We've found the line"? We? Who is this, "we"? Who gets to define the line of who can speak and who should be cancelled? And what standards did this "we" apply? Mr. Derbyshire is on the fringes of the right. Are there speakers on the fringes of the left that "we" would cancel?
And, yes, Derbyshire has said some vile things. I would not have invited him to speak, but students did invite him to speak. And thus I agree with Jonathan H. Adler who wrote, at Reason's Volokh Conspiracy, lamented The death of free speech at Williams College:
I am no fan of John Derbyshire's. He has written some contemptible things, and I supported National Review's decision to cut him loose over his intemperate writings. I would not have invited him to give a speech and (frankly) I question the judgment of the students who did. Nonetheless, Falk's decision to cancel the event - to, in effect, prohibit someone with Derbyshire's views from speaking on campus - was awful, and represents a betrayal of the ideals of a liberal arts education.
Had Derbyshire been allowed to speak at Williams, students, faculty, and even the then-college president could have come to the talk, listened to the speaker, and then challenged him on the contemptible things he has said and the intemperate things he has written. They would learn how to engage with someone holding distasteful views, better preparing themselves to engage with those in the world at large with similar views or simply holding opinions less distasteful, but still at odds with their own. In an update, Adler quotes Zach Wood '18 who had invited Derbyshire. That then-student better understood the purposes of a liberal arts education than did the college's then-president:
To be sure, I radically disagree with John Derbyshire on many of his views. Indeed, Derbyshire has said offensive, even hateful things about minorities, things to which I take exception. That is precisely why I was looking forward to exposing the flaws in his arguments. If every student does not desire the intellectual challenge of defending their own ideas against those they find objectionable, that is perfectly fine (anyone can choose not to attend the talk).
Robust and open discussion of ideas, no matter their content, is of critical importance because that is how we gain a deeper understanding of our world and of humanity. We should not settle for merely refining and advancing our own ideas. We also should not settle for using the term "racist," "sexist," or "homophobic" as an excuse to dismiss or quarantine any idea that is felt to be deeply offensive. The best way to deal with speech we dislike is not to restrict it or quarantine it. Rather, it is to combat it, to challenge it, to question it, and to expose precisely what it is about such speech that is erroneous. Taking this approach, I believe, positions each of us to contribute to the advancement of human understanding by interrogating and evaluating the quality of competing ideas. Embracing a diversity of opinions and a multiformity of intuitions is essential to a pluralistic society.
Both Jonathan Adler and our own Zach Wood understand the essence of a Williams education. So, let me encourage you to read Adler's piece, as relevant in 2023 as it was when published in 2016.
-B. Daniel Blatt '85