Free Speech Is “One Size Fits All”

As Cathy Young notes, maybe Professor Jeffrey Sachs was “a bit premature announcing the victory of free speech principles on campus.” Who would have thunk? Williams College faculty sought to amend its campus policy toward free speech. Uh oh.

A faculty petition at Williams College to adopt the Chicago principles, which many free speech advocates consider the gold standard of free speech philosophy, has divided the campus and pushed administrators to review the college’s policies.

Williams is in “meltdown,” said Luana S. Maroja, an associate professor of biology and one of the faculty members who led the charge for the college to endorse the Chicago principles, known formally as the University of Chicago’s “Report of the Committee on Freedom of Expression.”

It started, ironically enough, with a protest by 20 Williams students who sought to disrupt the faculty and prevent it from debating the merits of the proposal.

She said a group of about 20 students showed up, some carrying signs proclaiming “free speech harms” and other similar sentiments. Maroja said the students were disruptive and eventually started yelling at white, male professors to sit down and “acknowledge their privilege.” Maroja said she attempted to engage the students — as a Hispanic woman, she said she understood prejudice — and told them that shutting down speech they find offensive would only invigorate bigoted speakers.

The students were unpersuaded.

“Students were just screaming that we were trying to ‘kill them,’” Maroja said.

If someone is trying to “kill you,” what lengths wouldn’t a person go to? But “kill them” doesn’t mean what most of us understand it to mean. For a ‘splainer on the underlying concepts, this Aero post by Williams prof Darel Paul does an excellent job of translating the emanations and penumbras of The Great Awokening into English. On the one hand, when the students say “kill,” they mean it. On the other hand, it’s not “kill” in the sense that anyone other than them would comprehend it.

What is it about the Chicago Principles that’s so horrible, so deadly, that it compels these students, and those whose slacktivism followed by signing a petition of their own, to fight it, no matter what?

In their rebuttal, the students, who called themselves the Coalition Against Racist Education Now, or CARE, wrote that the faculty petition “prioritizes the protection of ideas over the protection of people and fails to recognize that behind every idea is a person with a particular subjectivity. Our beliefs, and the consequences of our actions, are choices we make. Any claim to the ‘protection of ideas’ that is not founded in the insurance of people’s safety poses a real threat — one which targets most pointedly marginalized people. An ideology of free speech absolutism that prioritizes ideas over people, giving ‘deeply offensive’ language a platform at this institution, will inevitably imperil marginalized students.”

Ideas. There is no place for such things at a liberal arts college. And some profs are seeing the wrongfulness of the Chicago Principles and their, ugh, free speech.

“They rely on a legalistic and formal framework that purports to offer a response to a set of problems that has little use for such blunt tools. They fail to recognize that higher education institutions must address the current tensions brewing under the heading of ‘free speech’ — brought on by students, faculty members and outside forces — by reconsidering, and possibly shifting, a host of practices in classrooms, dorms, clubs and administrations in ways that would differ across campuses. Those tensions cannot simply be resolved by endorsing a one-size-fits-all statement.”

When students decry their murder by MAGA, is it not the institution’s duty to ban speech and expression that imperils them? Shouldn’t colleges have the flexibility to silence those who would utter ideas that challenge the existence of marginalized students? Isn’t death by a thousand words just as wrong as death by a thousand cuts?

One size fits all is a pithy slur when it comes to the fit of dungarees, but it doesn’t apply nearly as well when it comes to constitutional rights, or the concepts they embody. Williams College may not be directly subject to the First Amendment as a private college, but the ideas still apply.

Like due process, not because it’s necessarily a constitutional mandate, but because it’s the mechanism by which an accused gets a fair chance to defend himself. Free speech enjoys the same application, even if the government can’t demand it of the school. There is no free speech, but only for the ideas that please you and support your beliefs. Yet, that’s precisely what is meant by tossing out the non sequitur one size does not fit all.

The contention is that the marginalized need not debate ideas that, according to their feelings, will kill them. Nor need they explain why, as that is racism in itself, expecting the victims to justify what is self-evident to their oppressors. In other words, if the woke students say it’s wrong, there is no option but to agree and silence speech that offends them. So much for the free speech problem being solved, as Sachs claimed.

Will the grownups at Williams College, the faculty charged with the education of their students that might include the possibility of death-defying notions, tell the kids that if they don’t like ideas, they don’t belong at Williams?

The committee on free speech that President Mandel formed is due to make its recommendations in about a month, said Jana Sawicki, its chairwoman and a philosophy and rhetoric professor.

Sawicki said she initially signed the faculty petition to support the Chicago principles — a no-brainer, she thought — but rescinded her name when she saw the students’ reaction.

“What needs to be bolstered here is trust in the institution, and the institution needs to deserve that,” Sawicki said.

It doesn’t look good. If the war is over, as Sachs claims, then free speech lost.

17 thoughts on “Free Speech Is “One Size Fits All”

  1. Robert

    Would it be too non-woke to suggest that students at Williams should take an economics course in order to learn that driving down the value of their already not-very-valuable liberal arts degree is a bad idea?

  2. phv3773

    Undergrads gonna undergrad. When my son was at Williams, the fight was over giving an honorary degree to Prime Minister Goh Chok-Tong of Singapore. Causes change by disputation endureth.

  3. DaveL

    Technically, the acronym for “Coalition Against Racist Education Now” would be CAREN. And she probably wants to speak with your manager.

      1. Grant

        And here I thought that you could tell a bad group (or bad law) by how labored the acronym is.

  4. CLS

    While Hanlon’s Razor generally applies in these situations, is there a point when we need to view these outrage mobs as student power grabs? Evergreen State was a prime example of the mob controlling the actions of campus administration. It’s not hard to see students who already think they’re marginalized or oppressed use that victim status as a club to get more control over colleges.

    Regardless, I don’t think the fight for free speech is over just yet. CARE Now is one of the stupidest acronyms I’ve seen in ages. Anyone could come up with better activist group names in a matter of hours.

  5. C. Dove

    Having attended Eugene Lang College in the mid-90s, I can attest that the seeds of the Great Awokening go back much farther than 2014.

    What we have here is more than a failure to communicate but the failure to teach (and grasp) critical thinking.

  6. LocoYokel

    Am I the only one who thinks these episodes are the perfect opportunity for teaching the value of free speech?

    As in “Ok we agree, there will now be limits on free speech here, starting with yours. Sit down and shut up or you will be expelled and a notation placed in your records. Proctors, remove and get IDs from those who disobey.”

    Maybe it’s just that I’m an old (but not so much as our host), reactionary shitlord, but it seems that a few episodes of this and they may start to get the idea.

    1. Dan

      As an old boss of mine liked to say, “shoot the first one, the rest will fall in line.” But the faculties have for so long abdicated their responsibility to be the adults in the room, that I’m not sure they know how any more.

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