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The Rise of the Comfort College

Last year, in the fall of 2018, I tried to stand up for campus free speech.

A small group of faculty at Williams College in Massachusetts, where I teach philosophy, had circulated a petition to have our institution sign a national pledge of allegiance to principles of free expression that originated at the University of Chicago. Over 50 colleges and universities, including Princeton and the Citadel, had already adopted the mainstream liberal principles, protecting both speakers and protesters.

I was cautiously optimistic. Like many liberal arts colleges, Williams had gone through a free-speech crisis — and survived. In 2016, our then-president canceled a talk from a conservative writer (the first presidential cancellation since 1865, when Ralph Waldo Emerson was barred from speaking on campus); he also ordered that a mural of the school’s founder be temporarily boarded over because of objections to its depiction of Native Americans.

In response to these actions and the uproar that followed, I decided, as an old-fashioned liberal, to teach a course called “Free Speech and Its Enemies.” It proved to be a good decision. When the semester began, most of the students were willing to censor almost anything they didn’t like. By the end of the semester, the consensus was eminently reasonable: Of course we shouldn’t censor or cancel anyone; we just have to work to maximize the educational mission of all our events.

What caused the change? A semester’s worth of readings, from John Stuart Mill to selected Facebook posts, as well as speakers representing a multitude of perspectives, and serious and civil class discussion. My students came to see that free speech protects everyone, especially the oppressed, and includes those who share their leftist views.



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