Williams students demand more rights to make policy affecting them and to break College rules without being punished

October 7, 2019 • 1:00 pm

I was at Williams College last week, and had a great time chatting with faculty and students. But during the last academic year, Williams was also a locus of student protest, largely centering on free speech (many students and faculty don’t want Chicago-style freedom of speech). By now, Williams has formulated its own long-awaited free-speech policy, but hasn’t yet released it to the faculty, students, and staff, though I believe that is several weeks overdue. In the meantime, over the summer, the College clarified its policies about putting up posters, about the rules for protesting, and about disciplinary policy for those who disrupt speakers.

And the students don’t like it, at least as evidenced by two op-eds in the student paper, The Williams Record. In fact, the students

a. Want to have a hand in making any policy like this that affects them
b. Want to engage in civil disobedience without any consequences, and
c. Believe that any “unclear” disciplinary process for disruptors of talks will have a “chilling effect” on student free expression.

Click on the screenshot to read the op-ed by the majority of the paper’s editorial board.

Let’s deconstruct the editorial. The editors’ words are indented, mine are flush left:

In a Sept. 5 email, Dean of the College Marlene Sandstrom notified students of revised and updated policies for campus protest, postings and speakers, citing the administration’s desire to be “as clear and transparent as possible in describing [its] policies around freedom of expression.” While we at the Record appreciate these efforts in increased clarity, we believe the lack of student input in developing these policies, the ambivalent language of the policies themselves and the potential chilling effect of threatened disciplinary action alongside this vagueness all pose serious concerns to student activism at the College.

In drafting and releasing these policies, administrators failed to consult with student groups or student leaders prior to publishing these policies in any capacity. Insofar as it is students who primarily stand to be affected by these guidelines, it seems only right that our voices should have been taken into consideration during the revision of this new policy, especially in light of the various on-campus protests which took place last year, such as the “March for the Damned.”

Ummm. . . . no, not everybody gets a say in policies that affect them, particularly when they are transitory students who, though they’ll be gone in four years, want to make rules that will affect all subsequent classes. This reminds me of children trying to tell their parents that they get a say in what disciplinary policies apply in their house. While students are free to voice their satisfaction or dissatisfaction with such policies, and can be consulted at the wish of the administration, they have no “right” to be on committees making policy, or to effect alterations of University policy on free speech. The University of Chicago’s free-speech policy was written solely by a faculty committee, which seems to me to be the right way to act.

Note the part in bold below:

Not only do we believe students should have been consulted in discussions over these policies, but the language contained within the new policy itself strikes us as vague, ambiguous and overbroad. The guideline that states, “Protests may not prevent, unduly obstruct, or interfere with the normal academic, administrative, or programmatic operations of the college” seems particularly unhelpful, especially when considering the notion that the success of a protest might very well be dependent on the extent to which it was able to interfere in College operations — the 1969 occupation of Hopkins Hall is just one such example of this. What constitutes an acceptable degree of interference? Who is responsible for determining if an obstruction is undue?

We believe the ambiguity of the new protest policy’s language essentially leaves decisions regarding the permissibility of various protests to the discretion of the administration. More concrete standards for assessing the permissibility of student protests would be much appreciated, as well as clarity regarding the administrative body or figure responsible for making such determinations.

There has to be some lack of specificity in policies like this because the degree of punishment depends on what kind of violation took place. It’s simply impossible to specify every possible discipline for every possible violation, since events will differ, the backgrounds and previous actions of students will differ, and so on.

Note especially that the students claim that obstructing College activities might be the best way to have a successful protest. In other words, they need to violate regulations to succeed. Moreover, in another op-ed by the paper’s managing editor, there’s a pretty explicit claim that civil disobedience shouldn’t be punished, which is an oxymoron if ever there was one. Civil disobedience is the violation of law or policy in service of a cause, with the violators willing to accept whatever punishments results from their actions to call attention to their cause while holding the moral high ground. In contrast, Williams students want to violate the regulations without being punished. As that other op-ed argues (emphasis is mine):

Tang [Suiyi Tang, “student activist and co-chair of the Minority Coalition”] raised questions over discretionary interpretation with regard to the statement, “Protests may not prevent, unduly obstruct, or interfere with the normal academic, administrative, or programmatic operations of the college.” She also expressed concern over an oversight role the College could take on, as suggested by the statement, “The college reserves the right to determine an appropriate location for rallies & picketing to ensure that college policies are followed, and to relocate or suspend any protest that violates college policies or the law.”

Tang said she believes a community discussion of the policies could be helpful for students, citing community forums that have been successful in the past.

Tactics previously employed by activist movements, such as walkouts and occupation of College buildings, Tang said, ought to be respected as acts in which students can express their wishes to a wide audience.

“I think we have to understand any sort of civil disobedience as a sign of expression or desire for communication with the administration,” Tang said. “The question is: What kinds of expression and communication are we being told are acceptable, based on these codes?”

Yes, of course civil disobedience is a desire to communicate—to communicate, in the case of Williams, that the students demand changes. And the students have already been told what kinds of expression and communication are unacceptable: “protests that prevent, unduly obstruct, or interfere with the normal academic, administrative, or programmatic operations of the college.” How much clearer can the administration be? Do the students want every possible obstruction laid out? That’s completely impractical.

Finally, the editorial board’s piece (highlighted at the top) also kvetches about the lack of specificity, as if every possible violation, and every possible punishment attendant on those violations, needs to be spelled out in advance, for, after all, students don’t want to engage in protests unless they are absolutely sure of the consequences. One gets the sense that they want to know exactly where the line is, so that they won’t get punished for crossing it. Imagine if the civil rights protestors of the Sixties made such a demand! They knew they’d be punished, jailed, and attacked for sitting in at lunch counters, or marching against state orders, but they did it anyway. That is civil disobedience.

Here are some petulant children demanding the right to make policy that affects them:

Finally, we are concerned that the policy’s invocation of the College’s disciplinary process — “Violation of these policies will result in disciplinary processes” — will have a chilling effect on student free expression without further clarification about what constitutes a policy violation, who will determine that violation and what those disciplinary consequences might be. Not only do students have the right to be informed about the potential punitive measures that they may be subject to if they do choose to protest, but it also seems that the vagueness of this stipulation might dissuade student activists from engaging in protests for fear of some unknown disciplinary action on the part of the College administration.

Thus, insofar as the new campus protest policy was created and approved in the absence of student voices, and the language of said policy is exceedingly vague, we at the Record urge the College administration to reconsider taking action to further revise the policy for clarity, formally taking student voices into account this time around.

These students should grow up, and I hope the Williams administration tells them that in so many words. You don’t always get your way.

14 thoughts on “Williams students demand more rights to make policy affecting them and to break College rules without being punished

  1. Well good luck to the administration and faculty at this college. Maybe the best thing to do is put out a definition of what administration does at the institution and what the faculty does. Then maybe a definition of what a student is and what they generally do at school. Maybe a reminder this is not a union shop and this is not arbitration. Then let them go home and decide if they really want to go to school. Maybe the local unions have a few openings for college drop outs. I can’t think where else they could work.

  2. The administration of the college should send a two word response to that schpiel:

    Piss off.

    They’re asking the people they’re ostensibly protesting against to help them have a successful protest. Honestly.

  3. That editorial in The Williams Record kinda reminds me of what the major said about the town in Bến Tre province during the Vietnam War — “we had to destroy the village in order to save it.” Difference is, while the editorial is almost as oxymoronic, it’s nowhere near as pithy. Who knew a piece on free speech could be written in such soul-sapping prose?

  4. The students may have a point, to the extent that it is often only disruptive protests have any real effect. The debate about what justifies such disruption – and who makes that judgment – is another matter, of course. The Extinction Rebellion protesters are making the same argument currently, as they try to shut down parts of London around Westminster, and the protesters in Hong Kong would likely make a similar point. For the record, I’m not endorsing students preventing free speech on campus, merely pointing out the reality that sanctioned protests “within the rules” are too often ignored.

      1. Well, I guess they’d avoid fossil fuels…

        I was just making the point that protests on American campuses aren’t new – Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young didn’t write “Ohio” for nothing – and, in genuinely extreme circumstances, might be justified.

    1. Nonviolent civil disobedience is a valid, justifiable form of protest in a democracy so long as one is willing to face the legal consequences of one’s actions.

      Sister Rosa had no illusions about what was going to happen when she refused to move from the “whites only” seat on the Montgomery bus. And there’s a reason MLK’s famous missive was postmarked “Birmingham Jail.”

    2. Most students seem to have the view that if the rest of us understood the goal of their protest, we would comply with their demands. So they escalate to be heard.

      But in many cases, bystanders do understand the issue under debate, but simply disagree with the protesters, either on the nature of the problem, or on the best solution. So perhaps we hear them just fine.

      If you escalate to violence or force, it is no longer just a protest.

      I already had one kid transfer out of a good school because he was unable to attend class, study, or even transit from building to building without having protesters scream obscenities and threats at him. By students who seem to always have plenty of time to print up posters and disrupt other’s studies.

      When the goal of activism is activism itself, it has become a farce. Also, it is hard to not notice that many groups, like Extinction Rebellion, address different issues but always find that the solution is international socialism.

  5. “Want to engage in civil disobedience without any consequences”

    Well, at that point, you’re just a coward too scared to engage in civil disobedience. It’s not civil disobedience if there’s no potential for punishment.

  6. I’d have no problem with a representative from the student government being on the team/committee drafting up a free speech policy. But I suspect these folks want far more control than that.

    As for being more transparent and specific, here’s an easy partial solution to that request: the college should state that any violent attack on people will be referred to the police for potential prosecution. How’s that for clarity?

Leave a Reply