Speech Climate at Williams
Williams receives a speech code rating of yellow from the Foundation for Individual Rights and Expression (FIRE). Colleges with Yellow ratings have policies that restrict a more limited amount of protected expression or, by virtue of their vague wording, could too easily be used to restrict protected expression.
In addition, Williams ranked #161 of 203 colleges and universities surveyed in 2022 College Free Speech Rankings by FIRE.
Williams College scored particularly poorly in three categories:
Administrative Support - 156th
This category measures the student’s perceptions of their college’s support for free speech
Openness - 168th
This category measures the student’s perceived ability to have difficult conversations on campus.
Disruptive Conduct - 193rd
This category measures how acceptable students find blocking, shouting down, and physical violence in preventing on-campus speakers from speech activity at their college.
One Williams student from the class of 2023 said, “Most students and many younger professors do not want cultural/political issues to be discussed from a conservative perspective. There is definitely a silence culture at Williams in effect practiced and enforced through intimidation by progressives and most African American students. Interestingly, most international students are surprised by the lack of open and free discussion of these issues." This student’s assessment of the situation at Williams matched with FIRE’s survey data. The student body surveyed at Williams was 72% liberal and 12% conservative.
Additionally, the difference in student support for a controversial liberal speaker and controversial conservative speaker was drastic. Over eight in ten students supported allowing all of the controversial liberal speakers on campus, peaking at 96% for the speaker who contends that "undocumented immigrants should be given the right to vote." When it came to allowing controversial conservative speakers on campus, all of them were opposed by at least 60% of the students.
Like every other NESCAC New England Small College Athletic Conference school, Williams performed well on Tolerance of Liberal Speakers, ranking 6th overall out of 203 schools. However, Williams does poorly on all of the other subcomponents, ranking anywhere from 107th to 193rd.
The topics Williams students identified as the most “difficult to have an open and honest conversation about on [their] campus” were affirmative action, economic inequality, freedom of speech, and the Israeli/Palestinian conflict as topics “difficult to have an open and honest conversation about on [their] campus.”
When it came to comfort expressing their views in various different contexts on campus, Williams students closely mirrored the data at the national level, with one exception: 26% said they were comfortable “expressing an unpopular opinion to your fellow students on a social media account tied to your name,” compared to 40% nationally. When asked if they were worried about damaging their reputation because someone misunderstood what they said or did, 64% said they were, and 22% said they self-censored often.
Over eight in ten students supported allowing all of the controversial liberal speakers on campus, peaking at 96% for the speaker who contends that "undocumented immigrants should be given the right to vote." When it came to allowing controversial conservative speakers on campus, all of them were opposed by at least 60% of the students.
When it came to Disruptive Conduct, Williams ranked near the bottom at 193rd and some of the findings are concerning. Almost four in five students (77%) found shoutdowns acceptable to some degree, compared to 62% nationally; 64% found blocking other students from entering an event acceptable to some degree, compared to 37% nationally; and, 32% said using violence to stop a campus speech was acceptable to some degree, compared to 20% nationally. Finally, just over two thirds (70%) of Williams students said the administration’s stance on freedom of speech was clear, and 67% said that it was likely the administration would defend a speaker’s freedom of speech during a campus controversy.
The administration should clearly affirm their support of free speech so that the student body will have confidence that their speech will be protected. Williams should also make it clear that they will support the speaker's free speech rights to discourage the proclivity to disruptive conduct demonstrated in these statistics.