How I Would Have Handled John Derbyshire’s Appearance on Campus

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In February the president of Williams College, Adam Falk, sent an email to the Williams College community announcing that he was taking “the extraordinary step” of canceling a speech on campus that the freelance writer John Derbyshire was scheduled to make at the invitation of a student group…

Brian Taylor for The Chronicle

In February the president of Williams College, Adam Falk, sent an email to the Williams College community announcing that he was taking "the extraordinary step" of canceling a speech on campus that the freelance writer John Derbyshire was scheduled to make at the invitation of a student group.

Falk’s decision was met by criticism from the student newspaper and by defenders of intellectual freedom from many points on the political spectrum. The conservative editor Roger Kimball declared that Falk had "disgraced himself" by writing "a chiseled, gem-like epitome of the self-righteous intolerance that has so blighted academic life for the last couple of decades." Henry Reichman, a liberal and chair of the AAUP’s Committee A on Academic Freedom and Tenure, wrote that Falk’s decision "paternalistically denies to students the right to hear controversial views and to determine for themselves what they think."

Within minutes of Falk’s sending his email, a Williams faculty member forwarded it to me. I wrote to Falk to ask him to explicate one sentence in his email. He had said that he holds free speech "in extremely high regard," but "there’s a line somewhere." With the prospect of a speech by John Derbyshire, "We’ve found the line."

I asked how he found that line and where it was. President Falk’s answer accompanies this article.

Disinvitations to campus speakers, snubs that force speakers to cancel their talks, and organized actions meant to silence speakers are abundant. Rhetorical support for the ideals of intellectual freedom doesn’t mean much when "the line" is drawn in such a way as to exclude people whose views rub against campus sensitivities.

I carry no brief for John Derbyshire’s views on race, notably that white people have much to fear from black people and should therefore avoid them. It’s a view that Williams College students have surely heard about or perhaps seen depicted in books or movies. But few at Williams have had the opportunity to hear directly from an intelligent and articulate proponent of "scientific" racism. All things considered, encountering the real thing in the controlled setting of a college lecture hall could be a very good thing.

Still, I understand what prompts a college president to go in search of "a line" that can’t be crossed. President Falk found his line in Derbyshire’s overt racism and hate speech. I doubt that is the right place to draw it. How much better would it have been if President Falk had turned to the Williams students and said something like this:

"The Williams community is going to be challenged by our having on campus a speaker whom many of us regard as a purveyor of foolish and hurtful views on race. I would not have chosen John Derbyshire to be a speaker at Williams, but he has been invited by students, and I stand by the independent judgment of Williams students. We don’t know exactly what Mr. Derbyshire will say on this occasion, but in the past he has said things that many of us regard as racist. The temptation will be to launch the kind of protest that would prevent him from speaking or, if he speaks, to prevent him from being heard.

"Protests of that sort would be a mistake. I would urge you instead to come to Mr. Derbyshire’s talk and listen politely to what he says, without interrupting him. If you find yourself getting angry, exercise self-control. Listen. Take notes. Figure out what parts of what he says are true, and what parts are false. Frame good questions. Be prepared to learn from the event and to discuss it afterward. Seldom in life will you get another chance as good as this one to hear firsthand from someone who holds the views that Mr. Derbyshire holds. There are, however, many who hold such views, and it is important that you learn how and when to respond.

"Let’s show Derbyshire and anyone else who is paying attention that the Williams community can rise to the occasion of dealing responsibly with provocative speech. That is what our intellectual freedom is all about."

President Falk lost the opportunity. I hope the next college president faced with a speaker who might rub against contemporary college sensibilities takes counsel.

Peter Wood is president of the National Association of Scholars.


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