A Williams College professor describes her school’s fight against free speech

November 29, 2018 • 10:00 am

I’ve recently heard from Dr. Luana Maroja, an evolutionary biologist at Williams College who is an associate professor of biology as well as chair of the biochemistry program. Luana wanted to describe some of the opposition she and others have faced at Williams College in trying to get it to adopt the Chicago Principles, my university’s freedom-of-expression policy that has been widely adopted by other schools.

Williams has been in the news lately because many students have opposed a faculty call for freedom of speech, with the students, as FIRE President Greg Lukianoff wrote in this article, effectively demanding freedom from speech. Be sure to read the student response highlighted in Luana’s piece.

I’ll add that Williams College, in Williamstown, Massachusetts, is described by Wikipedia as “ranked first in 2017 in the U.S. News & World Reports liberal arts ranking for the 15th consecutive year, and first among liberal arts colleges in the 2018 Forbes magazine ranking of America’s Top Colleges.” This year’s tuition is $55,140, with ancillary fees (room and board, etc.) adding another $14,810.

Luana described the events occurring when the faculty tried to get a free-speech policy enacted.


Luana Maroja

Many professors at Williams have been feeling the walls closing in. I’m an evolutionary biologist, and in my classes there is increasing resistance to learning about heritability (probably fear of the “bell curve”, something I actually dismiss by contrasting Brazilian with Americans, as I am from Brazil) and even kin selection! (Using the “naturalistic fallacy” argument, students assume that by teaching kin selection I am somehow endorsing Trump hiring his family.)  The word “pregnant woman” is out: only “pregnant human” should be now used (after all, what if the pregnant individual goes by another pronoun?). In other fields the walls have closed in even more. The theater department recently dealt with two challenges: a cancellation of a show and an uproar about another show – both shows deemed offensive or overtly violent to blacks, yet both written by African-American artists.  Williams is now developing a reputation of being unfriendly to artists of color.

While several speakers have been invited to talk about free speech (recently Geoff Stone and Frederick Lawrence), and classes on the topic have been taught, discussion about college policy never really got started among faculty or students.  This is in large part because faculty sharing my concerns about the increasing censorship on campus felt afraid of speaking up, always assuming that they were an insignificant minority.

In my view, the situation became critical when Reza Aslan came for a talk in campus titled “The future of Free Speech and Intolerance”. This was supposed to have involved a panel with three speakers and a moderator, but Negin Farsad (a social-justice comedian) did not come. The panel thus consisted of Alicia Garza (co-founder of the BlackLivesMatter movement), Reza Aslan (religious scholar) and moderator Jamelle Bouie (chief political correspondent for the Slate Magazine).  Reza Aslan dominated the conversation and, in his always convoluted and self-contradictory style, started by bragging that he had once been disinvited from another venue, proceeding to say that anything that offended him should not be allowed, and finally asserting that “only factual talks” should ever be allowed in campus. This nonsense was met with intense student applause.  It was appalling.

After Reza Aslan’s talk, a group of six Williams professors started talking about getting the college to adopt the Chicago Statement. We scheduled two days for open discussion among professors (November 15 and 20), talked to the University President and steering committee, made plans for student outreach, wrote a petition, supplementary documents and a “reasons” document, and sent this material to all voting faculty.  Within days, close to half of all voting faculty had signed the petition.

However, trouble started after a professor opposed to free speech shared the petition with students, who wrongly assumed that we were voting on the issue on November 15.  While I did reach out to these students to let them know that no vote was taking place and that this was a faculty forum to discuss ideas, these efforts were in vain.  A group of about 15 students waving posters stating “free speech harms” came to our discussion on November 15.  The professor leading the meeting was extremely nice, welcoming the students in the room and reading their response aloud (the response is now a petition [JAC: they closed the Google document to non-Williams people but The Feminist Wire still has the petition online.]).

But many of the students were disruptive throughout, finally asking white male professors to sit down and admit their “privilege”.  They pointed out how horrible the college is in welcoming and including them, but then stated that they want to be protected by the president!  They equated free speech with “hate speech” and with the desire of professors to invite John Derbyshire back (Derbyshire a figure within the alt-right movement, was invited by a student group and disinvited by president Falk a couple years ago).

I explained how censorship hurts the very cause they are fighting for, noting that because I am Hispanic, people often assume that is the reason I got into Cornell, got a job, and got grants, and that students of color will face the same fate in the outside world. Thus, I added, students need to be able to defend their positions with strong reason and argumentation, not by resorting to violence or name-calling.

Disinvitations invigorate bigots; they do not suppress their message.  Furthermore you can learn a lot from arguments you disagree with—something I have learned listening to creationists, climate denialists and even some bigots.  I emphasized that the reason we want free speech is not because we want to invite bigots, but because we don’t want to see discussion shut down. The recent cancellation in theater shows how “protection” of feelings actually hurt African-Americans (the artist who wrote the play)!  Students are hurting the very cause they think they are defending.

Finally, I re-emphasized that invitation is not the same as disinvitation: the Chicago Statement has rules on what to do once someone is invited, and has no guidelines about who should be invited.  Furthermore, the guidelines allow disinvitations for extremist speakers who poses a genuine physical threat to individuals.

While most professors at the meeting were highly supportive of free speech and many sent me grateful emails, I was shocked at the behavior of some of my colleagues. For example, one professor turned to the students and said that they should read the names missing from our list of signatories, as “those were professors that were with the students” (an appalling tactic that created an “us vs them” atmosphere). Another professor stated that she was involved in creating violence in UC Berkeley for Milo Yiannopoulos’s disinvitation and would be ready to do the same at Williams.

The meeting lasted for 2.5 hours, well beyond the single hour scheduled, and, unfortunately, I think our message fell mostly on deaf ears.  After the meeting was over, I sent an email to the College Council student who was there, trying to make our points clear once more.  But that same night we noticed that a group of students and an anonymous person had accessed our petition online and that large pieces of the text had been removed.  We deleted all our names and created a timeline of events, with the intention of showing people that this was not a secret cabal and that we had meant to include students in the process since the beginning.

The Tuesday meeting (November 20) was better and very constructive.  No students were present—it was too close to Thanksgiving—and about 40 professors showed up. This was a more dynamic meeting than any I ever attended, and I’m glad that the petition started a much-needed dialogue!

This past Tuesday, our College President sent an email stating that she will form a committee composed of faculty, students and staff members to look into the free-speech issue; the committee composition will be announced in 2019.  A couple of news pieces also emerged from the event (here is a piece against the Chicago Principles and one pointing out how students at Williams are demanding freedom from speech), and more should appear next week with the publication of the student newspaper.

I truly hope reason will prevail. Being born during a dictatorship in Brazil, I dread seeing censorship in place at my own college.  It is truly sad to see freedom of speech appropriated by the Right and by Trump; I hope we can fight both the Right and censorship, and that all universities and colleges can again take leadership in the free exchange of ideas.

Dr. Luana Maroja

67 thoughts on “A Williams College professor describes her school’s fight against free speech

  1. The student letter states: “Our beliefs, and the consequences of our actions, are choices we make.” Is this true? I do not believe that I choose to believe, I am either convinced by the evidence or I am not. I know that my biases influence how I interpret new information, but if the information turns out to be valid then I have no choice but to change my belief.

  2. In the student’s letter:

    “the issue is that these are not views we reject; they are views that reject us, and our very right to speak/breathe.”

    How does being, or more likely, feeling rejected cause one not to be able to breathe? This letter was signed by over 380 students (or children?). How is it this is happening to one of the best small universities in America?

    1. It sounds like they’re going for maximum hyperbole there to disguise the fact that “these views” mostly just make them a bit uncomfortable.

      Being slightly uncomfortable. It’s like not being able to breathe.™

    2. Reading this in 2021, I’m surprised to see that “I can’t breathe” slogan being used by the violently censorious long before the murder of George Floyd.

  3. This year’s tuition is $55,140, with ancillary fees (room and board, etc.) adding another $14,810.

    And yet the students are so under-privileged and downtrodden that any disagreement with their views causes them intolerable “harm”.

    1. Those figures made me shudder. The ancillary fees would almost cover the annual tuition at my little state alma mater! Funny how university kids are ready to riot over a visiting speaker but the student debt crisis…? Which one of these issues causes actual harm to university students, especially the underprivileged?!

  4. Kin selection =Trump hiring his relatives
    A theory popularized by George Hamilton (extra crispy), as opposed to WD Hamilton.

    1. Kin selection was a term coined by Maynard Smith (1964) to explain the indirect fitness benefits that accrue from aiding kin reproduction and to distinguish this from group selection. In one sense Kin Selection refers to relatedness due to common descent. However, a broader use of the term refers to the degree of shared genes at particular loci—whether or not these happened to come from shared ancestry. However, given that green beard effects (where genes can recognize copies of themselves) are likely to be rare the differences between these uses are unlikely to matter much in humans. Hamilton does not use the term in his writings. Inclusive fitness (unlike kin selection) does not require actual kinship, just genetically non-random altruism (Hamilton, 1975). This could occur through situations of comparatively low dispersal, for example.

      1. I think you over analyze jokes too much, but I did use “popularized” and not “coined”. My understanding is that Hamilton popularized the concept of kin selection before Smith coined the phrase. If I’m not mistaken, the concept was introduced in Origin.

  5. I have nothing to say beyond a hearty “brava” (or is there now a required gender-neutral replacement I should be using? “Bravx”?) to Dr. Maroja. Thank you for your hard work and bravery. I hope we’ll have more professors like you stand up in the future.

      1. From the inter-tubes: “The feminine singular form is brava. The plural forms are bravi and brave for masculine and feminine respectively. Saying bravo to a woman is incorrect. Although it’s not really impolite, it may make you sound as if you were mocking the performer for addressing her like a man, so don’t make fun with it.”

      2. In Italian you must say brava to women but I notice that in other languages the word is used only in the masculine form (at least in French, German and English; in Spanish brava/bravo has a different meaning, I do not know Portuguese).

        1. I am Spanish. We usually say “bravo” both to men and women (plural or singular), because we don’t understand it to be an adjective applied to the performer, but as a way of saying “that was fantastic”, like “oh, yeah!”.
          Anyway, I am getting older and maybe things have change since I left Spain.

    1. Yeah, I think the correct response to someone waving a poster that says “free speech harms” is to tell them to sit down and shut up.

  6. Frankly, I think the student views are unimportant. They are transient members of the institutional community. If they don’t like the institution, because of its free speech principles, then they can leave, and go to a school more amenable to their views.

    1. They may be individually transient, but of course students in general are an essential component of a university. If they consistently feel a certain way, it should be considered. Of course, we don’t allow elementary students much say in the running of their schools, and college students these days seem to lack for maturity…

    2. The views that these students absorb from their (mostly humanities) professors carry into the real world, so they’re not unimportant. Look at the journalistic outlets that are being molded by the students’ views. And, of course, many schools cave into students’ demands.

      1. It seems totally incongruous to send students to university to learn from professors, then not allowing the professors freedom of speech. If freedom of speech is only allowed to students, there is no reason for them to be at university. How does one learn by staying in a bubble of people your own age who parrot your own ideas?

  7. I’ll offer this pro-free speech quote from The Positronic Man by Isaac Asimov and Robert Silverberg, 1992:

    “How can you harm someone with a book? By hitting him over the head with it, I suppose. But not otherwise. Ideas can’t do harm- even wrong ideas, even foolish and vicious ideas. PEOPLE do the harm. They seize hold of certain ideas, sometimes, and use them as he justification for doing unconscionable, outrageous things. Human history is full of examples of that. But the ideas themselves are just ideas. They must never be throttled. They need to be brought forth, inspected, tested, if necessary rejected, right out in the open.” (P. 109)

    There more to this eloquent speech but that hits the main point. Now, the professor that bragged about instigating previous violence and threatened more in the future, that’s not free speech, that could become incitement and it would be illegal.

  8. My advice to all the snowflakes at this school, concerning free speech is to go back and review Watergate history. Then apply that to what is going on now with our government. Without free speech, where would we be?

    For some free education you should listen to the podcast on MSNBC titled Bag Man. This is about the Agnew story during the Watergate time. Sometimes full free speech takes a long time.

  9. I am not really that proud that my alma mater put forth the Chicago Principles. More embarrassed for academia that this had to be done. When you read the Principles, the impression you should have is – isn’t this obvious, why does it even need to be said.

    I think PCC(e) has a soft spot for Prof. Maroja. From her bio:
    Areas of Expertise: Evolutionary Genetics, speciation, landscape genetics

    Not sure what landscape genetics is but speciation must get Jerry’s heart beating. I assume she owns a copy of THE book by Jerry A. Coyne and H. Allen Orr. Jerry’s great work – that none of us have read. OK – maybe some readers of WEIT have read it. Probably less than five.

    1. I expect more than five here have read Speciation. I bought it knowing I’d struggle with the technicalities [I did], but I was surprised how readable it was. Good writing makes all the dif.

    2. Can’t blame him for that. 🙂 What man wouldn’t have a soft spot for Prof. Maroja?

      But it’s true. Jerry has explicitly dissuaded people here from reading Speciation, since it’s written for professional biologists and may not be enjoyable to the general public. But I might reconsider given Michael’s description below.

  10. “… faculty sharing my concerns about the increasing censorship on campus felt afraid of speaking up, always assuming that they were an insignificant minority.”

    Precisely the type of “chilling effect” on expression that the First Amendment’s Free Speech clause was meant to eliminate.

    1. And why every time someone says, “you people are making a big deal out of speakers being deplatformed, professors being protested/censored, etc. at X school are wasting your concern on a small number of isolated incidents that don’t reflect a larger problem,” it’s important to remind them of the chilling effect that continues to build with each such event (not to mention that these events are indeed indicative of a larger problem).

  11. I wonder what these students’ parents think about this issue? I know the students are adults and want to be treated as adults but my guess is that the parents are largely footing the bill for them to attend. I bet many of them are ignorant of what is going on. Perhaps if they knew, they would deliver their own version of the “free speech” speech to their children.

  12. It might be worth pointing out that the people who signed the petition are, among many other things, racists:

    “Take the privileging of the 2nd amendment over the 14th amendment, for example. Mirroring this harmful prioritization, Williams’ sudden and urgent need to protect “free speech” over all other issues for students and community members is evidence of white fragility, ideological anxiety, and discursive violence. This petition and the Chicago Statement are purely semantics and posturing. Why can’t we actually have a campus-wide discussion on this issue, one that is not dominated by conservative and white faculty? Can this instead be an opportunity to take a critical eye to how free speech is constructed and weaponized at institutions like Williams.”

  13. As the great champion of free speech Justice Louis Brandeis observed, “[t]he greatest dangers to liberty lurk in insidious encroachment by men of zeal, well-meaning but without understanding.”

    These students miss the paradox in their position: wherever free speech is abrogated, the first voices silenced are those of minorities. It is only because of free speech right that anyone can go about “waving posters” or engaging in discussion in the first place.

    1. My reaction to these things is outrage and the feeling that each of these students needs a good talking to. But seriously, they are under the spell of some awful groupthink that might be easier to break if tackled one on one. Kids this age are notoriously vulnerable to peer pressure.

    2. Isn’t it odd that the fear of free speech by the students puts them in the same basket with Trump. The evil press with it’s fake news out there telling stories he does not want to hear is just like the alternative view coming on campus and stirring up trouble. Lock them up and put them in jail.

  14. Probably not a new insight, but I find it interesting that “liberal” is apparently an insult in the minds of the petitioning students. And there they are in what used to be called a liberal arts college.

  15. … Reza Aslan … assert[ed that “only factual talks” should ever be allowed in campus.

    Reza Aslan wouldn’t recognize a fact if one bit him in his pompous ass.

      1. Definitely the latter. He has been brilliant in promoting himself while telling blatant lies for years and getting away with it, all the while getting people to consider him a serious intellectual.

  16. Dra Luana Maroja has a diverse background of research accomplishments, including community structure of tropical mammals, the genetics of mimicry in Heliconius (long-wing) butterflies, and genetic aspects of cricket speciation. Any Brazilian university would be proud to have her on its staff. I hope she is having second thoughts about abandoning Rio de Janeiro to waste her time with spoiled arrogant American rich kids.

  17. ” … finally asking white male professors to sit down and admit their “privilege”.

    This is appalling.

    I wonder whether the root cause of some of this unpleasantness is simply a desire to reverse the normal power relations between students and faculty. Faculty do have a lot of power over students; they award grades that can have a decisive effect on student futures and in some subjects they determine the curriculum and thereby force students to spend time on books or topics they find uninteresting or downright antipathetic.

    1. If this was the explanation or “root cause,” why are they only asking white male professors to sit down rather than all professors?

      And students don’t have the right to determine their own grades, and not much of a right to determine the curriculum. They are their to acquire knowledge, and the faculty has a better idea of what students should learn.

    2. I think you are right. Modern kids are taught to have independence and take charge of their lives. This runs up against the need for college to teach students. Students should question but first listen.

  18. “The word “pregnant woman” is out: only “pregnant human” should be now used (after all, what if the pregnant individual goes by another pronoun?).”

    How about this as principle of common sense – behavior trumps self-identification? If you’re a man who regularly goes to bathhouses and have sex with random guys, you can’t complain if someone calls you gay even if you identify as straight. If you provoke bar fights regularly, you’re a violent douchebag, even if you identify as a pacifist. And if you have sex with a man and become pregnant, you can’t complain if people refer to you as a woman, no matter what pronouns you’d prefer.

Leave a Reply