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Williams leadership need make crystal clear it supports free speech on campus

Last week, we reported on the FIRE (Foundation for Individual Rights and Expression) ratings showing that while the climate for free speech at our alma mater was improving, the college still ranked below average.

In a companion report on the NESCAC (New England Small College Athletic Conference) schools, FIRE provided greater detail on Williams and other small New England colleges. The long and short of is that many Williams students feel afraid to speak out on controversial topics, including during in-class discussions.

Almost two-thirds (64%) of Williams students also said they were worried about damaging their reputation because someone misunderstood something they said or did, just under a fifth (19%) said they self-censored “fairly” or “very” often, and a quarter felt “a good deal” or “a great deal” of pressure to avoid discussing controversial topics in their classes.

While only about a quarter of Williams students say they self-censor “fairly” or “very” often in conversations with students, professors, and in classroom discussions, 32% said that they are more likely to self-censor on campus compared to when they started college.” Think about that for a minute. Instead of college making students more comfortable in their own skin and with their own views, we are seeing the opposite: nearly one-third of Williams students feel less comfortable expressing themselves.

Nearly one-third of Williams students feel less comfortable expressing themselves than they did when they started college.

Not just that, a majority of Williams students favor disrupting speakers:

Almost three-quarters of Williams students (73%) said it was at least “rarely” acceptable for students to shout down a speaker on campus, almost three-fifths (57%) said this about blocking entry to a campus speech, and one-third said this about the use of violence to stop a campus speech.

For these students, Williams is not the place it was for many of us. Instead of students seeing a speaker presenting a viewpoint at odds from their own as an opportunity to understand another’s arguments, they not only close their own ears, but also want to prevent others from hearing as well. As a result, they won’t learn an art of intellectual engagement nor will they be able to sharpen their own abilities to formulate an argument.

If students don’t listen, how can they respond effectively? How can they learn to persuade others of the merits of their own arguments and ideas.

Oftentimes, it is in formulating responses to those with whom we disagree that we grow the most intellectually. We broaden our horizons in listening to – and understanding – different points of view. And in responding to them, we develop better means of expressing ourselves.

In establishing WFSA, we have spoken out on the value of free speech—and why it’s integral to a Williams education. Now, it’s time for the college administration to join us. But alas, Williams ranks 231st on “Administrative Support”:

When asked about the clarity of the administration’s stance on freedom of speech, one-third of Williams students said that it was “very” or “extremely” clear that the administration protects freedom of speech on campus, and another 41% said it was “somewhat clear.” Just over a fifth of Williams students (21%) said that it was “very” or “extremely” likely the administration would defend a speaker’s freedom of speech during a campus controversy, and another 35% said it was “somewhat” likely.

While these numbers are not as discouraging as our ranking suggests, it would be nice if the overwhelming majority of Williams students believed it was crystal clear the administration supports and protects freedom of speech in the Purple Valley.

And that they understand why such speech is essential to a Williams education.


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