A couple days ago I responded to an opinion piece by Williams College President Adam Falk that was published in the Washington Post. I didn’t respond to all of it but my general take was that Falk was far too quick to dismiss free speech problems on college campuses. But it turns out the situation was worse than I knew. One of the examples Falk used in his own defense was a recent talk by Christina Hoff Sommers. Here’s what he wrote:
American Enterprise Institute scholar Christina Hoff Sommers recently came to offer her critique of contemporary feminism. Our students listened closely, then responded with challenging questions and in some cases blunt critiques — utterances to which they, too, surely were entitled.
So according to president Falk, Sommers appearance at Williams demonstrated how smoothly appearances by conservative speakers can and do run on his campus. But according to Williams College senior Zachary Wood, who was president of the group that invited Sommers to campus, her speech did not go nearly as smoothly as Falk claimed:
‘You’re a racist white supremacist!” a Williams College student shouted at Christina Hoff Sommers, after she finished a recent campus talk on feminism…
After one student activist shouted “f— you!” at the speaker, an administrator seemed to affirm the heckler’s veto, signaling to me with a timeout gesture that it was time to end the event. In an effort to give as many students as possible a chance to engage the speaker, I approached the administrator and negotiated another 15 minutes for questions. But the remainder of the Q&A consisted mostly of bellicose rhetoric and long-winded stories of personal trauma, many of which had little to do with the topic at hand. Ms. Sommers, a scholar at the American Enterprise Institute and critic of third-wave feminism, endured such “questioning” for more than an hour.
As for President Falk’s description of the event, Wood says this:
During Ms. Sommers’s talk, many students did not “listen closely.” Instead, they acted disruptively by mocking her and snickering derisively throughout her entire speech.
For each “challenging question,” there were at least five personal attacks, directed either at her or at me for inviting her. One student started yelling aggressively, blaming me for his parents’ qualms about his sexual orientation. His rant lasted for at least five minutes. Other students stood up and exclaimed that they were better than the speaker because she was “stupid, harmful, and white supremacist.”
I guess we can grant that name-calling, shouting, and filibustering are not quite as bad as chanting and shouting down a speaker until they leave the stage. There are different grades of poor behavior and at Williams College students may deserve a D instead of an F. But that’s still nothing to brag about. Shouting “F**k you!” at an invited speaker is not a “blunt critique” it’s a tantrum.
As I noted previously, President Falk was eager to blame the bad behavior on speakers who “cleverly bully students into a prescribed role in a formulaic drama: intolerant liberal ‘snowflakes.'” But Christina Hoff Sommers isn’t responsible for the poor reception she received. That’s on the students who have come to believe that screaming “white supremacy!” at everyone they disagree with is a reasonable course of action.