Trustees | Freedom of Expression

Wellesley College student newspaper ignites free-speech debate

BOSTON GLOBE   |  April 18, 2017 by Michael Levenson

An editorial in the Wellesley College student newspaper that called for “shutting down” some forms of hateful rhetoric became the latest flashpoint in a contentious national debate over free speech and its limits on college campuses.

The editorial, published Wednesday in the Wellesley News, argues that the campus community will “not stand for hate speech, and will call it out when possible.”

“Shutting down rhetoric that undermines the existence and rights of others is not a violation of free speech; it is hate speech,” the editorial states. “The spirit of free speech is to protect the suppressed, not to protect a free-for-all where anything is acceptable, no matter how hateful and damaging.”

The editorial was widely criticized on social media as antithetical to the free exchange of ideas that is critical in a democracy and in liberal arts education. It comes as colleges across the country are wrestling with how to protect free speech in an era of trigger warnings, safe spaces, and even assaults on incendiary speakers invited to campuses.

Jeffrey Goldberg, editor in chief of the Atlantic magazine, tweeted that the Wellesley News piece was “one of the more frightening editorials I’ve ever read.”

Alexis Zhang, an editor at The American Council of Trustees and Alumni, wrote on Twitter that, “As an alum, couldn’t disagree more w/ @Wellesley_News. Free expression is the bedrock of higher ed and campus groupthink bad for all.”

But Sharvari Johari, a co-editor-in-chief of the Wellesley News, defended the piece, and said it was a response to internal incidents on campus, including private e-mail threads and comments on Facebook that she declined to detail.

“We don’t want our community to be a place where hate speech goes unchecked,” she said.

The newspaper’s website was not working Friday; Johari said it may have crashed due to higher-than-normal traffic.

Debate about free speech at Wellesley has intensified since last month, when Laura Kipnis, a professor at Northwestern University, spoke on campus during “Censorship Awareness Week.”

Kipnis has stirred controversy for arguing that attempts by colleges to combat sexual assault have contributed to “sexual paranoia” and a skyrocketing sense of vulnerability among female students.

At Wellesley, Kipnis was denounced by a student group called Sexual Assault Awareness for Everyone, which released a video blasting her views and arguing that “white feminism is not feminism.”

A week before the speech, student protesters at Middlebury College shut down a talk by conservative social scientist Charles Murray and injured a Middlebury professor who was with him.

About a week after Kipnis spoke, a group of Wellesley professors who are part of the college’s Commission on Race, Ethnicity, and Equity argued that Wellesley should think more carefully before inviting speakers like Kipnis. The professors argued that speakers who are brought to campus to encourage debate can instead “stifle productive debate by enabling the bullying of disempowered groups.”

“There is no doubt that the speakers in question impose on the liberty of students, staff, and faculty,” the professors wrote in an e-mail to the campus community that was obtained by FIRE, a group that seeks to promote free speech on college campuses.

Seeking to ease tensions, Wellesley’s president, Paula A. Johnson, wrote a letter to the campus community April 4 in defense of free expression.

“Wellesley supports diverse opinions and the rights of all members of our community to voice their views,” Johnson wrote. “Active, open debate enriches and illuminates — it is fundamental to how we create new ways of seeing and thinking.”

Thomas Cushman, the Wellesley professor who invited Kipnis, said he has generally been proud of the tolerance the college has shown for provocative speakers, despite what he called an uptick in intolerance this semester.

He said he believes the Wellesley News editorial represents only one viewpoint on campus.

“I don’t think one group of students necessarily speaks for the entire student body at Wellesley College,” Cushman said.


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