On April 25 I reported that the Williams College student council, by a vote of 13-8, rejected the bid of Williams Initiative for Israel (WIFI), a pro-Israel student organization, to join the many student organizations already approved. These include the pro-Palestinian organization Students for Justice In Palestine (SJP). Based on its actions and anti-Zionist stand, I consider SJP a “hate group”, but that doesn’t mean it should be banned. What it means is that if SJP is approved, so should WIFI. Favoring one group over the other is viewpoint discrimination, which is banned by the First Amendment. (Williams, of course, is a private school that doesn’t have to follow those free-speech guidelines, but it pretends to favor free speech.)
The reason WIFI was banned, of course, is because the College Council at Williams is woke, and demonstrated that by deep-sixing a pro-Israeli organization. Further, the Council vote was anonymous and the proceedings not subject to the normal live-streaming. The reason for the deviation from these customary procedures, of course, is that the students were cowards who didn’t want their discussion or votes to be public. This has the unfortunate side effect of depriving students, who are represented by the College Council, to listen to their representatives and see how they voted.
This violation of protocol, and manifestly unequal treatment of groups, wasn’t even opposed by the Williams Record, the hyper-woke student
organ of outrage newspaper. But it did publish a letter from three students objecting to the deplatforming of WIFI, which noted that that group was rejected on purely political grounds:
During the CC meeting, no Council member present contested WIFI’s compliance with school rules and regulations. Therefore, it is apparent that WIFI was denied official status on purely political grounds, as CC members and guests fought to silence us and effectively turned the meeting into a referendum on Israeli-Palestinian politics.
A counter letter from 11 other students opposed to WIFI makes it clear this really was an issue of free speech and viewpoint discrimination:
Free speech on campus requires some level of basic respect for our interlocutors. We can disagree, argue passionately, even yell; but we cannot, in good conscious [sic], fund student groups that refuse to acknowledge the basic humanity of those on the opposing side of the issue. We cannot support groups that, in response to Palestinian students sharing deeply personal accounts of the pain they have suffered during the occupation, trivialize the violence that this campus was supposed to provide them an escape from. We can have a healthy debate around Israel-Palestine on this campus without erasing the voices of Palestinian students, erroneously redefining colonialism or concealing acts of genocide.
Here again we see the lip service paid to free speech, but then the disclaimer that WIFI wasn’t practicing it because it was “erasing the voices of Palestinian students” and so on. (Exactly how does its existence “erase the voices” of the vociferous students SJP? These eleven students are fascists, and are one reason why Williams, brimming with students like this (as well as many like-minded faculty) is reluctant to sign on to the Chicago Principles of free speech.
In view of this double standard of the students, the Academic Engagement Network, an anti-BDS organization, wrote a polite letter to Williams President Maud Mandel on May 3, a letter you can see here. It informed her of what she should have already known: that in approving an anti-Israel organization but disapproving a pro-Israeli organization, the Williams College Council was violating First Amendment principles. An excerpt:
If Williams College was a public university, the CC’s decision against WIFI would be a violation of the First Amendment. Under Healy v. James, 408 U.S. 169 (1972), ideology is not lawful grounds for denying recognition to a student club. Williams College is a private institution but we note that it has voluntarily decided to promote robust open inquiry and to protect freedom of expression. Indeed, several weeks ago you sent a campus-wide email in which you reaffirmed these principles. You stated that the school’s goal “shouldn’t be to avoid disagreement or dissent, but to develop ways of engaging in it without losing respect for each other as people.”
The policies of Williams College aim to implement these laudable principles. According to its Code of Conduct, the school is “committed to being a community in which all ranges of opinion and belief can be expressed and debated…The College seeks to assure the right of all to express themselves in words and actions, so long as they can do so without infringing upon the rights of others or violating standards of good conduct or public law.”
While not a public university bound by the First Amendment, Williams College is nonetheless obligated to adhere to its own stated principles and policies. Consequently, we urge you to take immediate action to reverse the decision of the CC and to give WIFI the RSO recognition that it deserves.
And on that very same day, President Mandel finally took “immediate action”, criticizing the students for ditching WIFI as an RSO in a notice on the President’s Office website (click on screenshot):
. . . The transcript of the debate and vote indicate that the decision was made on political grounds.
In doing so, Council departed from its own process for reviewing student groups, which at no point identifies a proposed group’s politics as a criterion for review. The decision also seems to be in tension with CC bylaws, especially Article V, Section 3: “Prohibition Against Discrimination in Student Organizations.”
We’ve always expected the Council to follow its own processes and bylaws. I’m disappointed that that didn’t happen in this instance. College leaders have communicated to the organizers of Williams Initiative for Israel that the club can continue to exist and operate without being a CC-approved RSO. This is not a special exception. It’s an option that has been open to any student group operating within the college’s code of conduct. Even without CC approval, WIFI or any other non-CC organization can still access most services available to student groups, including use of college spaces for meetings and events. I see the communication of this fact to WIFI as a basic matter of fairness and people’s right to express diverse views. Differences over such views are legitimate grounds for debate, but not for exercising the power to approve or reject a student group.
Well, good for President Mandel for taking this stand. My approval, however, is a bit tempered by two considerations. First, it’s possible, though I don’t know for certain, that Mandel issued this statement in reaction to the letter she got from the Academic Engagement Network on the same day. She could have issued this statement ten days earlier, so it’s a bit of a coincidence. And if her hand was indeed forced, then this paints her as a reactive rather than a proactive president: a follower rather than a leader, and someone who acts only when her hand is forced.
Second, note that she kindly allows the WIFI group to exist without its being a Registered Student Organization, a status that may come with other perks like a financial allotment. Mandel may have the power to turn WIFI into such an organization, and if she can, then she should. She thus imperiously allows WIFI to exist in the hinterlands as a student organization, but not an approved one. Meanwhile, Students for Justice in Palestine continues to enjoy the privileges of being an approved RSO.
This is only one installment of the ongoing social and political crisis at Williams that is turning the school into The Evergreen State College of the East. There will be more to come: wait until you see how the President manages to argue why racially segregated housing isn’t really racially segregated housing.