Williams College finally has a “free speech” policy

November 17, 2019 • 10:15 am

The short take: Williams College, a ritzy and well-regarded liberal arts school, but one infected with a bad case of Wokeness, finally published its policy on free expression. It’s not as bad as I thought from previous drafts, but still suffers from insisting that one can have nearly complete freedom of speech coexisting happily with inclusivity.


The President of Williams College, Maud Mandel, promised a while back that the College would come up with a free-speech policy, but it’s been delayed for reasons unknown.

The issue with the policy was always twofold. First, many Williams students and faculty simply don’t want a free-speech policy along the lines of the gold-standard University of Chicago Policy on Free Expression.  (That policy, or one substantially similar, has been endorsed by 70 American colleges and universities.) Over and over again, both students and faculty—not all of them, to be sure—have emphasized the “harm” and “violence” (read: hurt feelings) that comes with “hate speech” (defined, as usual, as “speech we don’t like”). They wanted the right to either censor speakers or deplatform them, and not to be punished for doing so.

Second,  because Williams is become increasingly Woke, and because its administration, fearful of creating an Evergreen State situation, wants to avoid national attention caused by demonstrations, it has repeatedly tried to balance “free speech” with “inclusion and diversity”, realizing that the former is perceived by many to conflict with the latter. Thus, initial versions of the free-speech policy had restrictions like having a faculty adviser to help each group decide whether the speakers it invited were too controversial and might produce “harm.”

Earlier versions of the free speech policy, which I discussed here, thus suffered from trying to trade off free expression with diversity.  The first dilution was to try to create a class of prohibited speech that threatened “dignitary safety”, construed as the denigration of a group’s worth. One can only imagine the kind of speech that would be barred because it was this form of “hate speech”, but criticism of Islam, of Palestine, of affirmative action, of illegal immigration, and so on, might well fall under this aegis. And, according to the earlier version of Williams’s policy, that sort of speech, which is of course legal under the First Amendment, would mandate an official response by the College, although they don’t explicitly mention prohibition:

Among the kinds of legally protected speech at issue in our charge, there are two broad classes of potentially harmful speech. The first constitutes speech that offends—sometimes deeply so—but is part of the everyday debates, discussions, and deliberations that occur on a college campus. This speech threatens intellectual safety : “the attachment to one’s unquestioned beliefs.” Such safety simply cannot be maintained on college campuses, as the questioning of beliefs is at the very heart of a college’s educational mission. The second type of protected, but harmful, speech is that which threatens dignitary safety : “the sense of being an equal member of the community and of being invited to contribute to a discussion as a valued participant.” The College has a duty to maintain this type of safety, particularly in the face of what is commonly called hate speech: “speech that is intended to menace, intimidate, or discriminate against an individual based upon a personal characteristic or membership in a group.” Such speech, inimical in all respects to a college’s educational mission, is worthy of contempt and may warrant an institutional response. Such a response could include: “counter-messaging, condemnations, direct support to targeted individuals and groups, dialogue, and education.”

In my view, the institution should tender no such response, for so doing would make the institution adhere to a specific ideology. The Chicago Statement mandates no such response, and when a group invites a person generally considered odious, like Steve Bannon, our school simply says “he’s permitted to speak” without condemning him.

Further, earlier versions of the Williams Statement recommended a disclaimer that would make students think twice about inviting controversial (i.e., right-wing) speakers:

We recommend that a statement such as the following appear at the top of any communication (internal as well as external) regarding the invitation of outside speakers/performers/artists or other presenters:

Williams College is committed to building a diverse and inclusive community where members from all backgrounds can live, learn, and thrive in a context that robustly supports both inclusion and open inquiry. When planning events (speakers, artists, performers, exhibits, and others) we ask that you think carefully about the goals, format, and framing of your event and its relationship to the Williams community and its educational mission and values.

The aim of this revision is to remind those inviting speakers/performers/artists as well as speakers themselves about Williams’ aspirational ideals and values. These guidelines are not designed to prevent invitations, but rather to promote more thoughtfulness and transparency in the invitation process.

Well, I’m happy to report that these counterproductive measures have been eliminated from what seems to be Williams’s final free-speech policy, whose substance (along with an introductory statement from President Mandel) was published on Ephblog, a Williams alumni website that often reproduces emails sent to students and alums at the college. Here’s what they published two days ago:

First, the President’s note:

To the Williams community,

For the last year, members of the Williams community have been discussing how best to live up to our obligation to ensure both free expression and inclusion. Today I’m sharing a statement developed by the Faculty Steering Committee with my input, and reviewed with the faculty as a whole, that affirms our commitment to those core principles.

The essence of the statement is this: Freedom of expression and inquiry matters. Inclusion matters. Both values are essential to the health of any community, and especially to a healthy learning community. For Williams to continue reaching its highest educational aspirations, we need to maximize our commitment to both values. We need to run toward the hard things.

I’ve been gratified by the intelligence and passion that many of you have shown in discussing, debating and sometimes protesting this most crucial issue. My job as president is to guide that energy into helping Williams excel: delivering the best liberal arts education imaginable, and preparing graduates to set the standard for civic virtue and engagement.

I want to thank Steering for their careful work, as well as the faculty members who offered their views on the drafts, the Ad Hoc Committee upon whose report the statement is based, the people who worked to ensure that our college policies reflect our values, and all of you—students, staff and faculty—who added your views to the discussion.



Note again Mandel’s connection between free speech and inclusion, a connection which not only should not be made (Chicago doesn’t), but falsely implies that you can have a policy that maximizes both. That is palpably false: speech that criticizes a religion, such as the oppression of Islam or Catholicism, or a group’s activities (Israel, Black Lives Matter, Students for Justice in Palestine, and so on), clearly is not “inclusive”. What Mandel and the College are trying to do here is to comport two values that may often be incompatible. And where they do clash, I’d argue that free speech takes precedence over inclusion.

That is not to say that Colleges should willy-nilly be inviting Nazis or white supremacists just to stir things up. But if a college organization wants to invite someone, they presumably have a reason for doing so, and that person should be heard, even to the detriment of “inclusion”. I would, for instance, not object to Christians inviting a creationist to speak, or someone inviting a Holocaust denier or a critic of affirmative action like Ben Shapiro. I wouldn’t agree with them, but we should have the chance to hear them out.

But on to the policy as a whole. Here’s what went out to the Williams community:


To: The Faculty
From: The Steering Committee and President Mandel
Date: November 13, 2019

Inquiry, Expression and Inclusion at Williams College

At Williams, our educational mission requires us to cultivate an inclusive environment in which each member of our community is equally respected and equally invited to speak and to be heard. This goal unites the college’s core commitments to freedom of expression and inquiry and to building a community in which everyone can live, learn and thrive, as enunciated in our codes of conduct for faculty, staff and students.

The college extends the same opportunities for expression and debate to anyone invited to speak or participate in a college event. Visitors are welcomed and expected to participate in open discussion and robust deliberation while they are on campus. We expect anyone inviting an outside speaker to create such opportunities as part of the visit.

The college publishes clear administrative procedures for event planning and rules for the use of college property. The college likewise retains the discretion to impose reasonable limitations on the time, place and manner of speech by visitors to our community as well as by its continuing members. The college exercises this authority sparingly, and never with the goal of suppressing a point of view.

JAC: I’m adding a paragraph from the Chicago Principles below, indented further and put in italics, to show that they’ve copied some of the language:

In addition, the University may reasonably regulate the time, place, and manner of expression to ensure that it does not disrupt the ordinary activities of the University. But these are narrow exceptions to the general principle of freedom of expression, and it is vitally important that these exceptions never be used in a manner that is inconsistent with the University’s commitment to a completely free and open discussion of ideas.

Back to the Williams Principles:

Williams College does not consider an invitation to campus an endorsement of the visitor’s views. Further, in our encouragement of vigorous dialogue and the free exchange of ideas, we acknowledge that discomforting encounters will occur. In that knowledge, we will continue expanding ways to offer support to all individuals and groups within our community, as part of our mission to equip every community member with the tools they need for effective discourse, debate and dissent. We also recognize that free expression has its limits: speech that threatens, incites violence, or constitutes harassment has no place in our community.

Our policies, which are intended to protect and promote the freedom of every community member to communicate, debate and peacefully protest, can be found here. We recognize that in the past these freedoms have not been equally available to all people and that inequity of access persists today. The college is committed to supporting equal access to these freedoms and pledges to continue working to realize this commitment fully.

This isn’t bad, and, as I noted, copies almost word for word some of the stipulations of the Chicago Policy.

But I have three issues with the Williams policy. The first is its repeated insistence that the policy is consistent with maximal inclusion and diversity, which isn’t the case. In fact, this is explicitly recognized in the Chicago Principles:

Of course, the ideas of different members of the University community will often and quite naturally conflict. But it is not the proper role of the University to attempt to shield individuals from ideas and opinions they find unwelcome, disagreeable, or even deeply offensive. Although the University greatly values civility, and although all members of the University community share in the responsibility for maintaining a climate of mutual respect, concerns about civility and mutual respect can never be used as a justification for closing off discussion of ideas, however offensive or disagreeable those ideas may be to some members of our community.

The second issue is Williams’s claim that access to free speech has been denied to certain groups, and their policy will rectify that denial. What they mean, of course, is “minoritized groups” like blacks, Asians, and Hispanics. But in fact those groups have not only not been denied freedom of expression or access to free speech over the last few decades at Williams, but those groups have been the most prolific users of free speech, as evidenced by the many protests and boycotts they’ve promoted Here Williams is conflating equality of opportunity in America as a whole with access to free speech on its own campus.

The College should beware, though, for if any groups don’t have access to free speech at Williams, it’s conservatives and Jews, who have been pretty demonized on campus. (Last year a Jewish organization was denied student-group status by the student council, and the administration had to do an end run and force the group to be recognized).

Third, I don’t think that groups inviting controversial speakers should be forced to create opportunities for counterspeech, as stipulated by this bit of the Williams policy:

Visitors are welcomed and expected to participate in open discussion and robust deliberation while they are on campus. We expect anyone inviting an outside speaker to create such opportunities as part of the visit.

Yes, Q&A should usually be part of a talk, but it doesn’t have to be, as when there’s a panel discussion. The main discussions about a speaker’s views should be created not by the inviting organization, but by the students themselves, especially if they hold counter-events or protests. The new policy almost sets up controversial speakers to create opportunities for others to rebut them.  This is useful, but it shouldn’t be part of a free speech code.

In the end, this policy is okay, but I doubt it it will earn Williams College the “green-light” rating from the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education (FIRE) that it deeply craves. That’s because its current “yellow light” rating from FIRE is based not on Williams’s free-speech policy but on other things like sexual harassment policy, bias reporting, and other issues (see here).

9 thoughts on “Williams College finally has a “free speech” policy

  1. “The first is its repeated insistence that the policy is consistent with maximal inclusion and diversity, which isn’t the case.”

    One could argue that free speech is indeed consistent with inclusion and diversity. It’s certainly consistent with viewpoint diversity.

    The idea that criticising or offending someone or their views thereby “excludes” that person is a Woke notion that we should reject. Free speech is not intended to exclude and it doesn’t exclude. Rather, it includes — it includes everyone in the community of people whose views can be openly criticised. And it includes everyone by fully expecting those criticised to speak up in their own defence if they wish to.

    No-one is excluded from those who can be criticised; and no-one is excluded from those who can and may speak up for themselves. That’s about as inclusive as it gets!

    1. Yes. With free speech we reciprocate and include others in the same right we claim for ourselves – the right to express and receive opinions and information.

      Unfortunately, warm and fuzzy talk about ‘the X community’ often implies homogeneity incompatible with both viewpoint diversity.

  2. It’s sad that the policy could not be stronger, but it’s good to see recognition of a higher principle than “harm” and “violence”.

  3. It is gratifying to learn that so many colleges have embraced the Univ. of Chicago policy. Having read it now a couple of times, I think it is excellent and finely wrought; a policy that may be a benchmark for generations.

    Nevertheless there are some thousands of schools (depending on how one counts them) and 70 is rather a small fraction. Still, it’s got to start somewhere. I hope more “sign on”; it will help ease fears about what our schools are becoming.

  4. This is a very nicely done, well-thought out article. I’ve been waiting to see your take on the new freedom of speech statement from Williams College. Thanks for putting everything into perspective, particularly all the other things happening at the school which are unhelpful to free inquiry.

  5. They wanted the right to either censor speakers or deplatform them, and not to be punished for doing so.

    There’s a cost to free speech on campus in terms of tolerating that which one finds abhorrent. That’s the distinction between “free speech” and “free beer.”

    Some students (and, apparently, faculty) never seem to get that.

  6. I’ve read your site often since I saw your stuff on youtube about evolution/free will, and read your book. I’m an atheist of long standing, a NYC Australian American 1%er actually.
    I love your, and am enjoying by remote your trip to Antarctica so I don’t have to do it myself now. 🙂
    I’m an ex-Wall Ster//atty who now writes liberal political stuff like you do for places like Counterpunch and Forbes, also in the “middle” at themoderatevoice.com and democracychronicles.org. Keep up the posting, its appreciated. If you’re ever in NYC the drinks are on me Prof C.

    David Anderson, J.D.
    https://davidandersonweb.wordpress.com/about/ (private)

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