I Went to a Talk Called “Considering the Case for Campus Free Expression” and Here are My Thoughts

Image result for foundation for individual rights in educationOn April 3, 2019, The Society for Conservative Thought hosted “Considering the Case for Campus Free Expression,” a talk moderated by Professor Steven Gerrard, with guest speaker Nico Perrino, representative from FIRE (Foundation for Individual Rights in Education), and Professor Luana Maroja.

The night began mildly enough, with Perrino, Professor Maroja, and Professor Gerrard starting off by introducing themselves and their positions on free speech. Professor Maroja spoke first, explaining her experience with censorship - she was born in Brazil, under a dictatorship - and outlining her argument for the adoption of the University of Chicago’s principles on free expression, which can be found here. (For those who don’t know, many faculty here have been vocally supportive of Williams implementing a statement protecting free speech.) Professor Maroja pointed out that censorship does little but invigorate those who are banned from speaking, turning them into martyrs and giving them publicity. She also argued that if ideas are not expressed, they cannot be contested, and stressed that one must understand the opposition’s line of thinking in order to fight it.

Perrino spoke next, and his remarks largely echoed Professor Maroja’s; so much so, in fact, that one began to wonder about the purpose of having them both onstage. Perrino also emphasized the importance of knowing the world “as it is,” likening censorship, in a persuasive analogy, to “breaking a thermometer” - one may be protected from knowledge of the temperature, but the fever remains. He also said that hearing repulsive viewpoints will help sharpen one’s own ideas, and refusing to do so mistakenly assumes one’s own absolute correctness.

Everyone onstage was eager to distance themselves from the current administration and, more broadly, conservatism in general. Perrino gave examples of his company helping left-leaning students push back against oppression; both Professor Maroja and Gerrard explicitly stated that they “hate” Trump. In all, the speakers were quick to put space between themselves and The Society for Conservative Thought responsible for their being onstage, perhaps hopeful to avoid the public shame that has become associated with supporting Trump.

However, the students who largely dominated the Q&A at the end weren’t having it. One student explicitly asked how it was possible for those onstage to be anti-Trump, yet think Williams should invite speakers who endorse his views. The room grew tense as the Q&A continued, with the conversation turning, perhaps inevitably, to a discussion of the Marched of the Damned and the events preceding it - a topic that is only tangentially related, in that Professor Keith McPartland supported the UChicago principles, but damaged free speech himself in taking down the memorial for the absent professors. Professor Maroja gave an account of what occured, and one student vehemently countered it, telling her that everything she had just said was “completely false.” That same student also asked, fairly, why there was no one onstage to counter the views being expressed, which would have provided a more comprehensive ‘consideration’ of the issue of campus free expression.

The last question of the night, before time ran out, was from a student, who asked the speakers what they thought the purpose of inviting people with bigoted views to Williams was. Given that the speakers had just spent the entire night explaining what they thought the purpose was, the question seemed only to prove that no common resolution had been reached about the correct approach to campus free expression.

What the night really elucidated, at least for me, is that we do have a serious problem on campus, but it is not whether certain students feel they can comfortably express conservative views. While that may be a concern, the more pressing issue is the current lack of trust between Williams and its students. The students who asked pointed, biting questions, in particular those about the situation with Professor McPartland, seemed very angry and frustrated about events outside of the room, and the professors defensive from the very beginning, before the students had said a word in response to their statements. Though there wasn’t time, I wanted to ask the professors what they felt about the current mood on campus, and what they thought should be done about it. If there is no trust or respect among students and professors - a relationship that Williams, a place of learning, is founded on, and that it has long taken pride in - whether or not someone feels like they can wear a MAGA hat to class seems like a secondary issue. Before focusing our attention on issues of censorship, Williams needs to first heal the rift currently dividing its students and its faculty: a rift exacerbated by the Keith McPartland drama that has not yet been comprehensively acknowledged and addressed.