The Forum | Freedom of Expression

Free Speech on Trial: Falk vs. Derbyshire; Woodward vs. Shockley; Bollinger vs. Ahmedinejad

March 25, 2016

Does free speech on a college campus matter? Williams College President Adam Falk responded last week to criticism of his February 19 cancellation of John Derbyshire’s scheduled presentation. Falk cited the writer’s racist sentiments, and concluded, “No educational purpose of any kind would have been served by his appearance at Williams.” But at the time he issued his disinvitation, Falk had stated, in a perplexing paradox, “Free speech is a value I hold in extremely high regard.”

Free speech is not a pick-and-choose principle. President Falk injured the College by making free speech an optional value. If ever there was a time for the board of trustees to intervene, this is that time. The trustees must make free expression a core value that Williams will vigorously uphold, especially for an unpopular invited speaker.

College presidents have enough mentoring to understand their obligation to guard the free exchange of ideas. In 1928, Oliver Wendell Holmes defined free thought: “not free thought for those who agree with us but freedom for the thought that we hate.” In 1974, Pulitzer-Prize winning historian C. Vann Woodward reported to the Fellows of the Yale Corporation that the essential value of freedom of expression at a university is, “a forum for the new, the provocative, the disturbing, and the unorthodox.” Last year, the University of Chicago articulated and adopted unequivocal principles of commitment to free expression: “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, 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.” Princeton, Purdue, Chapman, Johns Hopkins, American University, the University of Wisconsin System, and others, have now adopted the same or similar principles.

President Falk’s obligation to honor the rights of the student group that invited Derbyshire – ironically named Uncomfortable Learning – could hardly have been clearer.

Defending Uncomfortable Learning’s right to host Derbyshire doesn’t mean supporting his cruel racism. It was absolutely appropriate for the editors of National Review publicly to fire him. Derbyshire’s words represent, to paraphrase Justice Holmes, “the thought we hate.” But it is not hard to understand why Williams College needed to see the invitation through. It had recent examples to guide it.

C. Vann Woodward in 1932 jeopardized his academic career to defend the African American communist Angelo Herndon, but he understood the imperative of protecting the right of the racist eugenicist William Shockley to speak at Yale. Those who underestimate how dangerous Shockley’s ideas were and are should read the biography provided online by the Southern Poverty Law Center. A 1956 Nobel Prize winner for his contribution to the invention of the transistor, Shockley parlayed his reputation to promulgate theories of Negro inferiority and the need for voluntary sterilization. Few, if any at Columbia would countenance the anti-Semitic, Holocaust denier, Mahmoud Ahmedinejad. Yet in 2007 Columbia president Lee Bollinger honored the invitation tendered to Ahmedinejad by the interim dean of the School of International and Public Affairs, while publicly challenging Ahmedinejad to have the intellectual courage to answer his direct and pointed questions about Iran’s behavior and his hateful ideologies. The challenge Falk faced was miniscule compared to those that Yale’s C. Vann Woodward and Columbia’s Lee Bollinger faced. They weighed freedom of speech against the words of two people far more dangerous than John Derbyshire. And freedom of speech won.

Significantly, Falk was already on notice about Williams’ academic freedom problem. He acknowledged back in October, that the behavior of Williams’ students in rescinding the invitation given to anti-feminist author Susan Venker to speak was antithetical to principles dear to Williams. Yet when given the opportunity for a teachable moment in the matter of John Derbyshire, Falk abandoned free speech.

The last best hope for Williams College is that its board of trustees will take up their fiduciary duty to ensure that Williams students are educated for the diverse and contentious world of a free society. They need that, not a safe space that leaves them helpless for engaged and effective citizenship.


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