Williams College president: The real threat to free speech isn't far-left students silencing speakers on campus

Williams College is a private liberal arts schools in Massachusetts. Today the Washington Post published an opinion piece by Williams’ president Adam Falk titled, “Williams College president: Don’t ignore the real threats in the debate over free speech.” The real threats, you’ll be shocked to hear, are not the students shouting down speakers, berating professors, erasing messages they disagree with, threatening violence, and generally demanding a safe space where no one rejects their intersectional politics. No, the real threat is from outsiders who “bully” them into acting that way. I’m not going to respond to all of his piece, but let’s walk through a bit of it:

Today’s students are far more eager to hear and engage with serious points of view of all kinds than you would think by reading the headlines. To understand this, just tally the annual speaking engagements of Charles Murray, Arthur Brooks, Jason Riley and other prominent conservatives who regularly speak to college audiences. But you won’t see many media stories titled, “Conservative Thinker Received Thoughtfully by Campus Audience.” That’s not a story that sells papers.

It’s true there are some conservatives who regularly speak to college audiences and have for years. And yet, recently, students on some campuses have taken to shouting down these speakers. That happened to Charles Murray just last month at the University of Michigan. In case president Falk somehow missed it, here’s what that looked like:


There was a similar scene when Murray spoke at Middlebury College earlier this year. One professor fleeing the mob of angry students on that campus wound up in a neck brace. The school eventually chose to discipline 67 students, so it seems the president of Middlebury might not agree the student protesters were not a problem.

As for Falk’s claim that “Conservative Thinker Received Thoughtfully by Campus Audience” doesn’t sell papers. First, nothing sells papers anymore because there’s this thing called the internet. Second, such a headline wouldn’t drive clicks precisely because that’s what we all expect should happen everywhere, all the time. In the same way, you’ll never see “Cars navigate 4-way-stop without incident” as a headline. It’s only a story when something goes wrong. And it has been going wrong all year on campuses around the country.

What has too often been portrayed as a simple problem of liberal campuses censoring conservative ideas is something far more complex.

Sen. Kennedy himself stumbled onto the real issue when he told the hearing that schools should be allowed to respond differently to “speech that’s inflammatory; speech that uses a racial epithet; speech that’s designed to provoke” than to “a point of view that may not be popular.”

The problem is that provocateurs such as Derbyshire, Richard Spencer and Milo Yiannopolous are intentionally blurring the line between the two. They have few policy ideas to offer, conservative or otherwise, and little or nothing interesting to say about critical issues such as health care, foreign policy or the tax code.

I have no doubt president Falk is a smart man but this is a very dumb argument. Free speech is not designed to protect speech that “may not be popular” it is specifically designed to protect speech that is judged inflammatory by someone else. And to suggest that speech is only truly valuable if it weighs in on the tax code or health care is just absurd. There is no policy quotient that renders speech valuable. Having listened to hundreds of policy speeches over the years, I can tell you there may actually be an inverse relationship between talking about those topics and saying something interesting.

That doesn’t mean that Spencer or his ilk are right or that their speech is valuable, but there is something valuable about the fundamental principle that we must sometimes accept that we will hear opinions we don’t like. The response must not be to lash out and attempt to silence the other person, though that is the increasingly popular choice on campus.

What today’s students object to is not hearing points of view different from their own, but hearing their contemporaries publicly humiliated and threatened.

Don’t attend. Protest peacefully outside. Reject the speaker’s views in writing. There are many ways to signal disagreement. The heckler’s veto is not one we should accept.

Speakers such as Spencer and Yiannopolous — craving attention, backed with outside money, pumped up with social media muscle and often surrounded by literal muscle — cleverly bully students into a prescribed role in a formulaic drama: intolerant liberal “snowflakes” silencing courageous speakers of uncomfortable truths.

They “cleverly bully students” into making illiberal fools of themselves? I really don’t think that flies any more than saying Charlie Hebdo cleverly bullied Islamists into murdering their editorial staff. In a liberal society, we expect everyone to be able to tolerate people with different opinions, even on matters we may consider sacred.

Just this fall we’ve seen the University of Florida forced to spend more than $500,000 to enable a single speech by Spencer.

Berkeley spent more than that to secure the campus for Ben Shapiro. And I agree it’s a ridiculous expense. I’ve made this point many times but since president Falk seems to have missed it: No one anywhere is spending half a million dollars on security when far-left speakers come to campus (not yet anyway). Why? Because people on the right are not threatening to shut down speakers they don’t like by any means necessary. The expense isn’t driven by the speaker it’s driven by the response to the speaker.

Would it be absurd for Charlie Hebdo to spend $500,000 on security for their office (I’m making that figure up to make a point)? Yes, that expense would be absurd to protect a bunch of cartoonists. But the problem, in that case, is not with the cartoonists, it’s with the people threatening to silence them.

How many more examples do we need? For how long are we going to allow the vocabulary of freedom to be hijacked by people trying to impress upon us its opposite?

Freedom is a big mess. That is its essential nature. But the fact that a goon like Richard Spencer can speak on a campus is a sign we have freedom to spare, not that it’s in decline. When we really need to worry about freedom being hijacked is when dissenting opinions are forbidden.

For instance, when an invited speaker at Williams College is uninvited after a student protest (which happened in 2015). An editorial in the campus paper said of the decision to disinvite, “The College should be a safe space for students, a place where people respect others’ identities. Venker’s appearance would have been an invasion of that space.” No one was bullied into taking on the role of campus snowflake in that instance, they simply adopted it on their own. And now the president of the school has too.