Williams College – February 18, 2016

President cancels visitor’s scheduled talk as potential hate speech

Williamstown, MA

In early 2016, a student group at Williams College called “Uncomfortable Learning” invited conservative commentator John Derbyshire to speak on campus about immigration and national identity. The mission of Uncomfortable Learning, its members say, is to engage controversial viewpoints on college campuses. Less than 48 hours before the event was scheduled to take place, Williams President Adam Falk cancelled Derbyshire’s talk because he believed the speaker’s opinions crossed a line into hate speech. This was not the first time that plans for a controversial presentation at Williams were called off; the previous fall term, Uncomfortable Learning had been required to disinvite anti-feminist activist Suzanne Venker after a series of student protests. Derbyshire’s cancellation marked the first time, however, that the Williams administration took such actions. Although the incident did not result in civil litigation or any other punitive action against the school or the student group, the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education (FIRE) indicated that it was just one of forty-two campus disinvitations that set a record in 2016.

Key Players

John Derbyshire is a conservative commentator best known for his controversial writings on mathematics, immigration, and race. Derbyshire wrote a popular column for National Review until the conservative publication cut ties with him in 2012 for an article it called “nasty and indefensible.” Entitled “The Talk: Nonblack Version” and published in a libertarian webzine, the article suggested that non-black parents should warn their children about the dangers posed by African Americans, just as African Americans might talk to their children about police violence. When Derbyshire was disinvited by Williams College, he said in a blog post that, “The naked, shameless totalitarianism on display here ought to be shocking, but at this point is just depressing.” He later uploaded his prepared notes for the talk on his website.

Zach Wood was president of Uncomfortable Learning at Williams College at the time of Derbyshire’s invitation and its cancellation. Wood, who grew up in the impoverished Anacostia neighborhood of Washington, D.C., identifies as an African American liberal Democrat. “I joined Uncomfortable Learning my freshman year because I wanted to push my intellectual limits,” he said. After he created a Facebook event for Derbyshire’s talk, Wood said he became inundated with negative messages from students, and he even found a note that read “your blood will be on the leaves” slipped under the door to his dormitory room. After the incident at Williams, Wood partnered with FIRE and wrote a series of op-ed pieces advocating for Free Speech in The Washington Post, The Nation, and other publications. He later became a Robert L. Bartley Fellow at The Wall Street Journal.

Adam Falk, a physicist, became president of Williams College in 2010. According to The Washington Post, President Falk identifies as Jewish, and his parents came to the United States as refugees from Nazi Germany. Hence, Falk said, he sees racial issues through a unique lens. “I think often political correctness is a very problematic term, code for, ‘I want to say racist things and I can’t say them,’” he told The Washington Post. Falk published a letter on the Williams residential website on February 18, 2016, officially disinviting Derbyshire and clarifying that the college had no role in planning the event. “There’s a line somewhere, but in our history of hosting events and speeches of all kinds, we hadn’t yet found it,” President Falk wrote. “We’ve found the line [with Derbyshire].”

Further Details

John Derbyshire was just one in a string of controversial speakers that Uncomfortable Learning invited to the Williams campus, apparently often without much incident. In a statement to NPR member station WGBH, Zach Wood said, “We thought that it was important for students to consider how national identity and immigration play into the issue of race, and we thought that Derbyshire brought a view that students were not hearing on campus. That’s part of the reason why we thought it could be conducive to intellectual discourse.” Wood pointed out that then-presidential candidate Donald Trump had sparked controversy as well, but on a national platform, and that engaging with those ideas is the only way to understand them more deeply.

The Post called the cancellation of Derbyshire’s talk “another sign of the delicate balance university leaders seek between protecting free speech and ensuring that people on campus are not subjected to hate speech or a hostile climate.” Falk’s decision elicited both praise and outrage. Some agreed with him that there is no place on campus for “racist ranting.” Others worried that the disinvitation discouraged dialogue between those of opposing ideologies.

Many of the most ardent opponents of Falk’s decision were members of the Williams College community. Art History Professor Michael Lewis, for example, spoke to WGBH about his concerns that the Williams administration was pushing students apart. Ferentz Lafargue, director of the college’s Davis Center (which deals with issues of diversity and inclusion) wrote an op-ed for the Post in which he argued that universities should train students to stand up to bigotry, not hide from it.

President Falk announced new speaker policies within days of the controversy, mandating that student groups fill out an application to bring speakers to campus in a process that Wood called “arduous.”

The Alfred P. Sloan Foundation, which funds science and technology research, announced in June 2017 that Falk would leave his post at Williams to become president of the organization, effective in January 2018. Williams College has not named Falk’s successor, and it is unclear whether that person will choose to maintain the speaker application process.


Wood Testifies before the U.S. Senate Committee on the Judiciary

In June 2017, Wood joined Isaac Smith, a student who sued Ohio University for penalizing his student group over sexually suggestive t-shirts, to testify before the U.S. Senate Committee on the Judiciary in a hearing entitled “Free Speech 101: The Assault on the First Amendment on College Campuses.”

Wood argued that issues such as racism and sexism can never be resolved without a clear appreciation of free speech. He insisted that the First Amendment should know no partisanship, and that conservatives and liberals alike benefit from its protection.

In response, the Committee Chair, Senator Chuck Grassley (R-Iowa), and Senator Ted Cruz (R-Texas) agreed with the students that college officials often improperly censor speech. “Many administrators believe that students should be shielded from hate speech — whatever that is — as an exception to the First Amendment. Unfortunately, this censorship is no different from any other examples in history, when speech that authorities deemed to be heretical has been suppressed based on its content,” Grassley said as the hearing began.

President Falk responded to the hearing in a statement to CNN, saying that Williams College “appreciates Zach Woods’ work” in respectfully and thoughtfully challenging the college’s notion of free expression.

External References:

Williams College cancels a speaker who was invited to bring in provocative opinions, The Washington Post

President Falk’s letter

Williams Blocks a Speaker, Inside Higher Ed

Williams College’s Zach Wood Won’t Back Down on Free Speech, FIRE on YouTube

Campus Disinvitations Set Record in 2016, FIRE

How I Would Have Handled John Derbyshire’s Appearance on Campus, The Chronicle of Higher Education

Senate judiciary committee hearing focuses on campus free speech, CNN

Zach Wood’s written testimony before the U.S. Senate Committee on the Judiciary

Prepared by Adelina Lancianese ‘17

August 22, 2017