Wellesley Confronts Its Free Speech Demons

In the bad old days, Wellesley College was one of the Seven Sisters, women’s colleges where debs would go to meet Ivy League fellows and, if all went well, graduate with their Mr.S. degrees. But over time, the sex segregation ended, and it now stands alone as a very small, exclusive, well-regarded liberal arts college. It’s rated number 3 in national liberal arts colleges by U.S. News.

One might expect this to mean that it’s a pretty good school. Would it make you cry to learn that it means that the rest of the schools are just that god-awful? After all, if one is incapable of critical thought coming out of a liberal arts college, then what possible reason could there be for its existence? And as this staff editorial at The Wellesley News demonstrates,* there is no critical thought needed to remain a student.

Many members of our community, including students, alumnae and faculty, have criticized the Wellesley community for becoming an environment where free speech is not allowed or is a violated right. Many outside sources have painted us as a bunch of hot house flowers who cannot exist in the real world. However, we fundamentally disagree with that characterization, and we disagree with the idea that free speech is infringed upon at Wellesley. Rather, our Wellesley community will not stand for hate speech, and will call it out when possible.

Hot house flowers? There’s also special snowflakes, fragile teacups, even crybullies, a word I truly disfavor. Each has a somewhat different meaning, but they’ve all grown trite with overuse, if not misuse. Rather than fall back on cute analogies, though, this editorial offers the opportunity to discern the best critical thought Wellesley College students can muster in defense of their cause.

They “fundamentally disagree” that their college community has become an environment “where free speech is not allowed or is a violated right.” That’s not exactly the complaint. Perhaps they fail to understand the problem. Perhaps they have deliberately crafted a straw woman. Perhaps they are in denial. Perhaps they just don’t understand what free speech means.

[W]e disagree with the idea that free speech is infringed upon at Wellesley. Rather, our Wellesley community will not stand for hate speech, and will call it out when possible.

Presumably, whoever wrote, whoever edited, this editorial was under no time constraint that forced them to write this. Presumably, they had all the time needed to put their very best effort into parsing the words that reflected their deepest thoughts, their best argument, their most cogent rationale, for their cause. And this is what they came up with.

To restate the argument,

Wellesley isn’t against free speech. Rather, Wellesley is against free speech.

The obvious distinction is that the editorial says Wellesley “will not stand for hate speech.” In the scheme of liberal arts academia and thought, a decision has been made that hate speech is not free speech. While this is legally false, and their argument spans the legal philosophical void, where people who seek to enjoy the benefits of legal concepts without the responsibility of knowing or understanding them get to expound, the question remains whether a quasi-legal cum philosophical explanation will work.

Wellesley students are generally correct in their attempts to differentiate what is viable discourse from what is just hate speech. Wellesley is certainly not a place for racism, sexism, homophobia, Islamophobia, transphobia or any other type of discriminatory speech. Shutting down rhetoric that undermines the existence and rights of others is not a violation of free speech; it is hate speech. The founding fathers put free speech in the Constitution as a way to protect the disenfranchised and to protect individual citizens from the power of the government. The spirit of free speech is to protect the suppressed, not to protect a free-for-all where anything is acceptable, no matter how hateful and damaging.

The line drawn is “viable discourse from what is just hate speech.” A mind capable of critical thought might immediately see the problem with this claim of differentiation. One person’s “viable discourse” is another person’s “hate speech.” This isn’t a taxing concept. But it’s used to take the next step, or slide as the case may be.

Shutting down rhetoric that undermines the existence and rights of others is not a violation of free speech; it is hate speech.

If only a scholar would explain the unfortunate circularity of this reasoning, as they are using their value judgement of hate speech to undermine the existence and rights of others, making their speech hate speech as well.

But then comes an homage to originalism:

The founding fathers put free speech in the Constitution as a way to protect the disenfranchised and to protect individual citizens from the power of the government.

What’s notable here is the inclusion of the word “disenfranchised,” which is true only because it is a subset of the whole, as suggested by the second clause. That, too, is true, but only because it, too, is a subset of the whole. Yes, free speech protects the disenfranchised because it protects everyone. Yes, free speech protects individual citizens, as well as groups of people in whatever forms of association they create. They have the right to associate, and not associate, as well. It’s also in the Constitution. In fact, it’s in the same Amendment as free speech.

We at The Wellesley News, are not interested in any type of tone policing. The emotional labor required to educate people is immense and is additional weight that is put on those who are already forced to defend their human rights. There is no denying that problematic opinions need to be addressed in order to stop Wellesley from becoming a place where hate speech and casual discrimination is okay. However, as a community we need to make an effort to have this dialogue in a constructive and educational way in order to build our community up.

The women of Wellesley College end their argument in a fashion similar to how they began.

We are not interested in tone policing. Rather, we will tone police in an effort to have a dialogue limited to only those ideas we approve of.

That the Wellesley News wrote an editorial devoid of reason, another standard word salad of conflicting jargon, isn’t exactly breaking news. That this comes from a college that was once thought to represent smart women is, of course, disturbing. That this made it past an academic adviser, if that happened, suggests that parents of these students deserve a refund.

But that it is the view of a newspaper, even a student newspaper, that censorship of speech and ideas taxes their “emotional labor” means that these girls, when they leave the hot house for the grown-up world, will bring with them their inability to grasp fallacious arguments, uncritical belief in in flawed ideas and their love of censorship.

This editorial was written to address the criticism of censorship on campus, the worst demon any journalist, student or otherwise, can face. They stared their demon in the eye and hugged it. They confronted their demon and surrendered.

*It appears that Wellesley may have disappeared its post. However, the web remembers.

45 thoughts on “Wellesley Confronts Its Free Speech Demons

  1. B. McLeod

    They must not understand “many,” or they would surely wonder why the perception they disagree with is so widespread. I hope they realize finances at ABA Journal will never be sufficient now to fund careers for more than one or two of them.

      1. B. McLeod

        It is also curious that “calling out” and “shutting down” seem to mean the same thing to them.

  2. Quinn Martindale

    The tone policing they’re trying to avoid is the tone policing of the people “forced to defend their human rights. Shutting down hate speech isn’t tone policing under that rubric since you’re condemning the ideas expressed not the tone. However, under that same standard, the call for constructive and educational dialogue is the very tone policing they’re trying to avoid.

  3. Lex

    I can’t decide if “hothouse flower” sounds more like slang for the new girls at a brothel, or the last thing you want to be in prison.

  4. el profesor presente

    It’s bigger than dialogue. Someone fell asleep at the “pretend we’re not totalitarians” switch when this line made it into the editorial:

    “This being said, if people are given the resources to learn and either continue to speak hate speech or refuse to adapt their beliefs, then hostility may be warranted.”

    So just not speaking hate speech isn’t enough to avoid “hostility.” Of course, we can’t know who has adapted their beliefs if they don’t tell us. They could be thinking microaggressive thoughts. The next obvious step is Affirmative Conformity.

  5. DaveL

    I’m sure the standard response from them would be that there is no right to hate speech, therefore they are not infringing anybody’s right in their own speech. Likewise, I doubt they would suppress speech aimed against the right of students to carry handguns on campus, or the right of private businesses to refuse business that offends their religious sensibilities, because they do not recognize these as legitimate rights. Or, as J. Parnell Thomas once said as chairman of the House Unamerican Activities Committee, “We will determine what rights you have and what rights you have not got before the Committee.”

  6. Beth

    “The emotional labor required to educate people is immense” – This phrasing is starting to really annoy me. Teaching does not require immense emotional labor. Convincing other people of your point of view does. They are conflating them.

  7. Virginia K

    The Wellesley editorial is alarming and embarrassing, and reflects badly on the college, but you are really seriously uninformed about Wellesley historically as a place where people went to scare up a husband. It’s a once-superior school that seems to have lost its way.

    Before the Ivy League men’s colleges opened their doors to women, Wellesley was one of the hardest schools to get into and to succeed in academically, and its graduates include Hillary Clinton, Madeleine Albright, Nora Ephron, and Diane Sawyer, to name a few with name recognition

    1. SHG Post author

      I think it best I just let this float and leave it to others to decide whether you’ve made your point.

  8. Bruce Coulson

    “Do not attempt to consult your dictionaries. We control the definitions. We control the interpretations. We will decide what words mean, what the law says, what are the right ideas to be heard. We will control what you will be able to see and hear. You’re about to take a journey that goes from the beginnings of logical error to the Outer Limits.”

  9. Patrick Maupin

    “Shutting down rhetoric that undermines the existence and rights of others is … hate speech.”

    Glad we all agree that censorship is at least hate speech. Oh, wait — journalism major can’t string words together? Is it too late for a refund?

    1. SHG Post author

      What is astounding is how they were incapable of seeing the circular reasoning and hypocrisy in their own writing.

      1. Patrick Maupin

        Not that astounding — the proofreading is so lacking that one has to assume basic reading comprehension is missing as well, so it is unlikely they read well enough to absorb any real philosophy.

        But that may not even be the most pressing issue — their reading skills are so lacking that it’s difficult to imagine they could do basic mathematical word problems. These are the people at the Dairy Queen that you don’t want to give $11.00 to when the register reads $5.36. Just give them the ten and accept that you’ll now have six singles in your wallet.

        At least you don’t have to worry about them commenting here.

          1. Patrick Maupin

            Sometimes I think you forget the trauma you inflict on the rest of us. Even if they have wifi and can type, I suspect that solving “6 – five” might be beyond their ken.

        1. Lex

          Your prescriptivist ridicule perpetuates the cis-heteropatriarchical status quo, and is thus hate speech. Two independent clauses can self-define their relationship however they see fit.

          1. Patrick Maupin

            Excellent question!

            (Puts on tin-foil hat to drown out the voices so he can think more clearly about the query.)

            I think I’ve got it figured out. The abysmal education that makes it difficult to get correct change is part of the vast government conspiracy to move us to a cashless society.

            [Ed. Note: This was the 90,000th comment on SJ.]

  10. Mike Hammer

    Back in my newspapering days, the managing editor would have posted this to his office window with red exclamation marks all over it and heads would have rolled.

      1. Dan

        I’d think a liberal arts student would have even less excuse for such abominable writing than, say, a math or engineering major. Or are the norms of written English merely tools of patriarchal oppression? I can’t keep up.

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