Free speech at Williams means that students, faculty, administrators, and invited guests can speak their mind without sanction from the college. It also means that others respect their right to speak, letting them have their say before responding. That is, if they choose to respond. Free speech also allows others to consider speakers’ remarks silently – or to just ignore them.
For example, if students felt strongly about an issue, they might decide, following the appropriate campus protocol, to book a classroom where they could expound at length on the topic, publicizing the event. Attendees would be expected to listen and refrain from disrupting the talk.
To be sure, should someone disrupt, said individual might contend that they too were exercising their rights of free speech. But that disruption would have limited, if not prevented, the students who booked the room from having their say.
Not just that. The disruptors could book their own room to make their case.
As it is with students’ remarks, so too should it be with student posters and displays.
Today, Williams has a rule that to post something in Paresky Center (the building which replaced Baxter Hall) the individual or group posting must include an e-mail.
One student followed that rule, posted a display with pictures of the hostages held by Hamas and a prayer he had written out by hand. Titled “Kavanah”, a Hebrew word that can be translated as “devotion” or “intention,” he wrote: “In creating this display it is our intention to ensure that those taken hostage by Hamas are not forgotten, even for a moment. Our memory will spur us to action.”
He then offered verses honoring the things “We remember”, including “those who have suffered from Hamas’ cruel and barbarous deeds.” He concluded with a plea for peace, quoting the Book of Isaiah: “Nation shall not lift up sword against nation. Neither shall they learn war any more.”
An anonymous individual defaced that plea for peace with angry words, slogans lifted from the chants and posters of anti-Israel protestors. You could say that that individual was exercising their right of free speech. But they scrawled their slogans on someone else’s display instead of writing them out on a separate piece of paper and posting it according to campus guidelines.
Just as someone who disrupted the hypothetical students’ talk in a classroom, this person disrupted, if you will, the free speech of the student posting a prayer for the release of the hostages – and for peace.
The vandalism did not end with the initial scrawling of slogans. Someone else (or maybe the same person) added calls for violence.
Only then did the college react. The college removed the defaced posters. President Mandel sent a campus-wide email to students, faculty and staff, promising that “Any community member found to be involved will be subject to the college conduct process, which can lead to disciplinary action.”
Let us hope the perpetrator(s) is found and that disciplinary action is taken. This will show that the college is committed to free speech.
Let us also hope that the student was able to replace the defaced poster with new ones. And that the replaced posters remain untouched.