In November 2017, the Young Americans for Freedom invited its first speaker to campus. Nonie Darwish, the founder of Arabs for Israel, was widely accused of Islamophobia during her remarks in the Sanford Room, prompting a debate among students over how the campus community should balance free speech with its commitment to diversity and inclusion.
The faculty was no exception. More than a year after Darwish’s remarks resuscitated their internal debates, they ratified the Guiding Principles for Speech and Expression, which is a tweaked version of DePaul University’s speech guidelines. This non-binding resolution, proposed by the Committee for Diversity, Equity, and Social Justice (DESJ), affirmed the right “to engage in speech and expression consistent with the values of academic freedom and inquiry,” but it also emphasized that the Colleges have a “responsibility to create a respectful and inclusive learning environment whereby members of historically marginalized groups are empowered to express and engage critically with a diversity of viewpoints.”
According to Professor Justin Rose, the former chair of the DESJ committee, the impetus for this discussion may have come even earlier as Solomé Rose, the former Chief Diversity Officer, tried to heed a warning by the Southern Poverty Law Center that provocative speakers could come to campus after the Charlottesville riots. Professor Rose indicated that “It became clear to us that we are continuously being too reactive to these incidents, and not only are we being reactive, we are being unprepared. There was that one speaker who the Young Americans for Freedom brought to campus, Nonie Darwish, and — you know, her views aside — what was very clear to us at the DESJ was that there were many faculty members who didn’t know she was coming to campus and didn’t know how students felt about her. At the DESJ we wanted to work with the institution to come up with a response plan. The first process would be the Guiding Principles. The second resource would be learning how to have difficult conversations in the classroom.”
Professor Vikash Yadav, the chair of the Committee on the Faculty, cautioned that he could not speak for those who proposed the resolution, but said, “Those who were putting forth the principles from the Committee for Diversity, Equity, and Social Justice, what they wanted to communicate is that free speech comes with certain responsibilities and it particularly needs to operate within an academic framework. It needs to be substantiated by evidence and reasoned arguments. I think they were reacting to the perception that speakers would be invited to campus merely to invoke anger instead of having a reasoned discourse.”
However, there was not consensus about the Guiding Principles and a group of faculty members proposed the Chicago Statement on Free Expression as an alternative. This alternate resolution would have established a broad latitude for free speech, arguing that “debate and deliberation may not be suppressed because the ideas put forth are thought by some or even by most members of the Colleges’ community to be offensive, unwise, immoral or wrong-headed. It is for the individual members of the Colleges’ community, not for HWS as an institution, to make those judgments for themselves, and to act on those judgments not by seeking to suppress speech, but by openly and vigorously contesting the ideas that they oppose. Indeed, fostering the ability of members of the Colleges’ community to engage in such debate and deliberation in an effective and responsible manner is an essential part of the Colleges’ educational mission.” However, the Chicago Statement also includes exceptions for harassment and intimidation. When asked what distinguished the two proposals, Yadav offered, “I would say that the Chicago principles were more circumscribed in terms of the authority that they confer and I also believe that the Chicago principles give greater scope for open debate.” After being asked to expound on whether it is important for students to be equipped to debate and deliberate with people who say hateful or offensive things, Yadav noted that “Having been a minority on a small liberal arts campus, I do think that it’s important that instead of deferring debate or circumscribing debate that we encourage students to be able to articulate their positions. How can we do that? We can do that by modeling debate among the faculty that is civil and reasoned. We can do that by encouraging difficult conversations in the classroom.”
In response to those who support the Guiding Principles, Yadav said, “Their arguments are also worth noting. They said that minority students are tired of having to justify their humanity, their rights, their being on a daily basis and I can understand that. I can see how it wears students down to constantly feel that they are under attack for just their identity. It’s a difficult balancing act. Students shouldn’t have to justify who they are and they shouldn’t feel personally attacked. We should be debating policies, not identities.”
The policy implications of the Guiding Principles are difficult to judge at this moment, as Rose indicated that the administration would have the final say in how to implement policy. “We were hoping that they [the Guiding Principles] would inform policies,” Rose said, “but they are not meant to be policies … The whole creation of the principles was always to be an iterative process, by that we mean, we didn’t think that DESJ should lock themselves in a room and dictate the conversation. How do we balance … between upholding free speech, freedom of expression and our commitment to diversity and inclusion?”
However, Rose did suggest that the Colleges have the legal ability to take action against speakers if it chooses because “We are a private institution, so we don’t have to strictly adhere in the same way as a public institution to certain forms of expression. If we wanted to, we could draw parameters around what kind of speech or actions are acceptable … Here’s one way to think about this: You don’t need to ban people from campus if you don’t agree with their views, but you can ask groups for the rationale behind bringing them. If the staff or faculty member can’t provide that rationale, then can we find someone who can both provide a different perspective and respect our commitment to diversity and inclusion. There’s plenty of people who have genuine critiques of terrorism who don’t then take the next step of broadly labeling one group as deficient and dangerous.” Rose further clarified that “It’s not our place to decide what those rules should be … I think the hope is that, as educators, that we never have to ban anyone from campus because students will recognize that they are part of this community, not just students, and at the end of the day we aren’t just going to bring people to campus to get a rise out of other people.”
Rose argued that there are other, more constructive ways to equip students to debate and deliberate with people they consider to be hateful. Rose said: “in the context of my classroom, I show a documentary that follows the alt-right, white nationalists in Charlottesville and it actually gives a platform for their views. But for me it’s within a larger context of an educational endeavor where I’m trying to show that there are these views and, whether right or wrong, this is a slice of America and we shouldn’t ignore this, and perhaps we even want to comment on it, but this exists. I can do that in a very responsible manner in which students are being exposed to different views and it can be part of a larger educational context, but notice I don’t need to bring a white nationalist to come to campus and shout at black students about how terrible they are.”
Several professors on both sides of the debate declined to comment on this story, suggesting the discord remains controversial among the faculty even though Yadav emphasized that it was a civil debate. Indeed, proposals for the adoption of the Chicago Statement have recently incited controversy and student protests at Williams College. Professors without tenure may feel a particularly strong apprehension about commenting on such contentious issues. Although the support for the Guiding Principles was not unanimous, the faculty has now for the first time provided its official view on the free speech debate. It remains to be seen how this judgment will affect policy as HWS continues its transition towards its first female president, Joyce P. Jacobsen.