On February 18, Adam Falk, president of Williams College, sent an email to the Williams community announcing “the extraordinary step” he was taking by “cancelling a speech by John Derbyshire.” The email was sent on a Thursday, cancelling an event that had been scheduled for the following Monday. I have corresponded with President Falk about his decision, and with his permission, I will present his full, unedited answer.
You can skip to that below, but I hope you will stay with me as I review the broader situation.
A Disinvited Decade
The Derbyshire disinvitation was, of course, only one more in a growing list of disinvitations on college campuses, as well as other snubs, actions prompting invited speakers to cancel their own appearances, and speakers showing up only to be drowned out by protesters. In 2014, the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education (FIRE) published a “List of Campus Disinvitation Attempts, 2000-2014,” which captured nearly 200 cases. That was before George Will was disinvited by Scripps College in October 2014, and before Suzanne Venker was disinvited from Williams College in October 2015. Venker is the author of several anti-feminist books and a frequent guest on Fox News programs.
As it happens, Venker wasn’t disinvited by President Falk. Her red card came from the students who originally invited her. They disinvited her after they came under intense pressure from fellow students. President Falk at the time defended Venker’s right to speak. In a column (“How to Disagree”) in the student newspaper he wrote, “Whatever our own views may be, we should be active in bringing to campus speakers whose opinions are different from our own.”
The campus disinvitation phenomenon has been widely discussed—and deplored. It represents a failure on the part of colleges and universities to uphold the cardinal principles of intellectual freedom and freedom of expression. Cry-bully students and Black Lives Matter (BLM) activists primed to take “offense” at anything that troubles them; faculty members frantically eager to engage in virtue signaling; and college presidents determined to stay ahead of the wave of political correctness have contributed to this odd form of censorship.
The beginnings of campus protest are often traced to Berkeley Free Speech Movement (FSM) of 1964-1965. As though the protesters had set out to prove Hegel right, the movement gave birth to its own antithesis fifty years later: a movement that flat out rejects the ideals of free expression in favor of “safe spaces.” The distance between FSM and BLM turns out to be much smaller than anyone could have dreamed.
Among the members of the National Association of Scholars are many who view the disinvitations as a singularly bad development. I share some of that outrage, but the task of NAS is to seek to repair American higher education, and merely declaring that a college here or a university there has behaved in an egregious way does limited good. In the case of the decision by Lori Bettison-Varga, president of Scripps College, disinviting George Will, I wrote her a letter urging her to reconsider. I wrote separately to the Scripps board of trustees and yet again to the editors of the student newspaper. Rather disconcertingly, President Bettison-Varga did not reply, nor did any trustee, any representative of the trustees, or any student editor.
The decisions by all involved to ignore my letters is, I believe, part of the larger phenomenon. Not answering a letter is another way of closing the door on the exchange of ideas. It is a less visible form of silencing but important in its own way. In 1987, when I went to work in the John Silber administration at Boston University, one of my first tasks was to answer the letters of complaint that were part of an organized campaign. The hundreds of letters stemmed from the non-reappointment of a faculty member who had a base of support outside the university. Answering them was not a matter of sending the same canned response to everyone. My instructions were to take each letter on its merits and explain as fully as needed the university’s position.
Why would a university take precious time and resources to answer individually hundreds of letters all making pretty much the same point? The provost told me that the central task of the university administration was to uphold the principle of rational debate. If we could not justify the university’s actions against each individual challenge, we would in effect forfeit the debate. Maybe one of those letters would have an argument that we had never properly considered. The path was always open, in principle, to reconsideration.
The rule which we followed in that and every other case was that every letter that could be answered had to be answered. That excluded obscenity-laced rants and letters from people lost in psychotic delusions—but not much else. And by psychotic delusions, I mean my-dog-is-a-space-alien and such like.
I have no idea whether other college and university administrations were so scrupulous, but I do know that, for many years, whenever I wrote to a college official, I almost always received a courteous response. The courtesy might have had the smooth surface of banality, but at least the recipient felt the need to acknowledge that a transaction of some sort was taking place.
Scripps College taught me that those rules had been vacated. My efforts at reasonable persuasion (no invective!) had met the newly erected blank wall of we-don’t-see-any-need-to answer-our-critics.
When dissent is treated as illegitimate, dissenters inevitably seek channels outside the control of the censors. The world teaches us this lesson again every time some authoritarian regime is met with protesters who have organized via Facebook or some other social media. Think of Tahrir Square and Kiev. The William F. Buckley Society at Yale seized on Scripps’ disinvitation to George Will by inviting Will to be the keynote speaker at its first annual “Disinvitation Dinner” in April 2015. It was a brilliant move. A great many people who otherwise would never have heard of Scripps College will remember it for years to come for just this one thing: a silly college that created a program specifically to bring conservative speakers to campus and then flinched when it inadvertently invited a conservative speaker. Will’s views on the “rape crisis” on campus could not be voiced at Scripps because they conflicted with student orthodoxy.
We need the principle of freedom of expression not to protect the right of people to hear speakers with whom they already agree, but to foster the occasions in which we hear views that are unfamiliar and perhaps disagreeable.
President Falk’s Email
President Falk’s email to Williams College in which he announced his decision to disinvite John Derbyshire is a curious mixture of troubled conscience, contradiction, evasion, and high dudgeon. He professes his “extremely high regard” for free speech, as part of an explanation for why he is curtailing free speech. An exceptional circumstance apparently calls for an exception to the principle. But what exactly is the exceptional circumstance? All we learn is that Derbyshire crossed “a line,” and the line has something to do with “hate speech.” Here is the email:
To the Williams Community,
Today I am taking the extraordinary step of canceling a speech by John Derbyshire, who was to have presented his views here on Monday night. The college didn’t invite Derbyshire, but I have made it clear to the students who did that the college will not provide a platform for him.
Free speech is a value I hold in extremely high regard. The college has a very long history of encouraging the expression of a range of viewpoints and giving voice to widely differing opinions. We have said we wouldn’t cancel speakers or prevent the expression of views except in the most extreme circumstances. In other words: There’s a line somewhere, but in our history of hosting events and speeches of all kinds, we hadn’t yet found it.
We’ve found the line. Derbyshire, in my opinion, is on the other side of it. Many of his expressions clearly constitute hate speech, and we will not promote such speech on this campus or in our community.
We respect—and expect—our students’ exploration of ideas, including ones that are very challenging, and we encourage individual choice and decision-making by students. But at times it’s our role as educators and administrators to step in and make decisions that are in the best interest of students and our community. This is one of those times.
Within minutes of President Falk having sent his email, a faculty member at Williams forwarded it to NAS. I trust it also went to other destinations. Not long after, Roger Kimball published on PJ Media a biting response, “Adam Falk, President of Williams, Joins the Fight Against Free Speech.”
My first thought was to wonder whether we could turn this development into an occasion to steer higher education back to better ground. In January, NAS published “The Architecture of Intellectual Freedom,” a long and careful laying out of distinctions between academic, intellectual, and First Amendment freedoms, and how all three relate to the broader purposes of higher education. It was NAS’s attempt to stand back from the current melee over Black Lives Matter, microaggressions, safe spaces, and the like, to see if we could find some answers to today’s discontents. President Falk’s email seemed to provide an opening. He discerned “a line” that had been crossed. The first step would be to see if he would say what that line is.
I wrote to him and asked. The Scripps experience still fresh in memory, I had tempered my hopes of a response. But President Falk did respond, and he responded again when I asked for—and received—his permission to publish what he said. He wrote as follows:
Dear Mr. Wood,
While I am not interested in an extended dialog with the National Association of Scholars regarding matters at Williams College, I am prepared to give a brief response to your question about John Derbyshire’s canceled appearance here. To that end, please see his opinion piece “The Talk: Non-Black Version.” This article was considered so racist by the National Review (no bastion of left-wing orthodoxy, I assure you) that upon its publication the editors severed their association with Derbyshire and refused him further access to their pages. Typical of its content is the following excerpt, in the form of advice to “nonblack” children:
(10a) Avoid concentrations of blacks not all known to you personally.
(10b) Stay out of heavily black neighborhoods.
(10c) If planning a trip to a beach or amusement park at some date, find out whether it is likely to be swamped with blacks on that date (neglect of that one got me the closest I have ever gotten to death by gunshot).
(10d) Do not attend events likely to draw a lot of blacks.
(10e) If you are at some public event at which the number of blacks suddenly swells, leave as quickly as possible.
(10f) Do not settle in a district or municipality run by black politicians.
(10g) Before voting for a black politician, scrutinize his/her character much more carefully than you would a white.
(10h) Do not act the Good Samaritan to blacks in apparent distress, e.g., on the highway.
(10i) If accosted by a strange black in the street, smile and say something polite but keep moving.
As for Derbyshire’s views on white supremacy, I would point you to the following passage that appeared on the website VDare:
Leaving aside the intended malice, I actually think 'White Supremacist' is not bad semantically. White supremacy, in the sense of a society in which key decisions are made by white Europeans, is one of the better arrangements History has come up with. There have of course been some blots on the record, but I don't see how it can be denied that net-net, white Europeans have made a better job of running fair and stable societies than has any other group.
Frankly, this is the kind of material I would expect to see distributed by organizations such as the Ku Klux Klan.
Derbyshire's rhetoric, as typified in these passages, isn’t the explication of provocative, challenging or contrary ideas. To speak to what I’m sure is a particular concern of the National Association of Scholars, his work on race isn’t remotely scholarly. Derbyshire simply provokes. His racist bile would have added nothing to the complicated and challenging conversations occurring every day on our campus, across a wide range of ideologies and experiences. No educational purpose of any kind would have been served by his appearance at Williams.
I hope this clarifies matters.
Adam F. Falk
President and Professor
Well, yes, President Falk’s response clarifies matters, though perhaps not quite as much as he thinks.
When I wrote to President Falk I explained:
I do not write as a defender of Mr. Derbyshire’s views. Rather, I write as the head of an organization that is deeply interested in—to use your phrase—where “the line” should be drawn between permissible free speech on campus and impermissible forms of expression.
President Falk’s answer does not really address the question of where and how he draws the line. It explains that Mr. Derbyshire holds views about race that he, Adam Falk, finds abhorrent; that are so aberrant that he was fired by the National Review; and that are not “remotely scholarly.”
I was already familiar with Mr. Derbyshire’s “The Talk,” and knew about his firing from National Review. I’m perfectly prepared to stipulate that Mr. Derbyshire’s writings about race are far outside the mainstream of public discourse on race on campus and in the U.S. at large. He comes close in the second quotation to declaring himself a “White Supremacist,” and we can leave it at that. The issue is not whether Mr. Derbyshire has said things that are extreme, offensive to most people, and ill-founded. He has done all that. The issue is whether such speech has crossed “a line.”
And it is possible—with due deference to President Falk—that Mr. Derbyshire’s words have crossed the “line” between what can and cannot be said on campus. But it would be very helpful to know some more about that line. Who drew it? Where is it? How is it policed?
I have had a further exchange with President Falk, which I would say offers no greater illumination. If I may venture an interpretive summary of his position, it would be this. President Falk, upon looking at the published words of Mr. Derbyshire on race, recognizes Mr. Derbyshire as a racist who engages in hate speech, and that is unwelcome and impermissible at Williams College. Moreover, anyone defending Mr. Derbyshire’s right to speak at Williams College is complicit in spreading hate speech.
In my answer to President Falk’s first response I said:
I have often benefitted from the opportunity to hear first-hand from people whose views I strongly disagree with or, in some cases, find repellant. Whether Williams students might similarly benefit is an open question.
My view, of course, is a restatement of the classic position in favor of open expression. A rebuttal to it is that some views are so far beyond the pale of reasoned discourse as not to be countenanced in a community devoted to scholarly standards. The rebuttal to the rebuttal is, “Who decides?”
But it might be helpful to break this down further:
- Colleges and universities these days frequently invite and countenance with ease proponents of racist views. The proponents are seldom if ever White Supremacists, but other kinds of racists come as invited speakers, paid consultants, staff members, and sometimes faculty members. So if the line is that no “racists” should be allowed to speak on campus, the line is either poorly policed or hypocritically applied only to one kind of racist.
- It seems likely that racism isn’t the only form of bad expression that lies on the far side of “the line.” But since the line at Williams is so far written in invisible ink, we have no way of knowing who else or what else is excluded. This doesn’t seem like a good recipe for maintaining the “free speech” that President Falk holds in “extremely high regard.”
- Distinctions have to be drawn among the contexts of free expression. A speaker invited to campus to give a one-off lecture is in a very different relation to the community than a faculty member who is a long-term relation to the community. The invited speaker can be and often is someone who expresses views at strong variance with the community. Colleges and universities ought to be places where the boundaries for such speakers are large—uncomfortably large.
I have a certain sympathy for President Falk. He intuits correctly that there are instances in which a college president should rightly draw “a line.” But I don’t think he has succeeded in drawing it well.
I have a few suggestions for where such a line might be drawn. Among those who should not be invited or, if invited should be disinvited, include:
- Advocates of criminal violence
- Spokesmen for or advocates of nations or movements engaged in armed hostility with the United States
- Figures who are fugitives from the law of the United States
- Figures publicly identified as leaders of organized crime
It is certainly imaginable that even in these cases students could benefit from a first-hand encounter with such speakers, but in these instances the college has a higher responsibility to the rule of law.
There may be other cases too where “the line” should be drawn, where the question is not so much the rule of law but some sense of decorum. For example, there have been instances of “sex workers” invited to campuses to give live demonstrations. I would favor a line that excludes individuals known to engage in lewd behavior or invited specially to engage in lewd behavior.
But let me add that I can well imagine vigorous opposition to each and every one of these exclusions. A college president who wanted to uphold any of them would rightly be expected to lay them out in advance and offer solid reasons why they should be enforced.
Back to Derbyshire
In the case of Mr. Derbyshire, it is hard to see that his views on race, however repellent, would warrant his exclusion from his giving a talk on immigration, as he planned to do. He is not, to my knowledge, someone who has ever advocated for violence. He is, rather, an advocate for racial avoidance. He harbors a view that most of us would judge to be profoundly mistaken. Why not let students see that for themselves?
President Falk’s decision to draw “the line” at Mr. Derbyshire perhaps deserves a little more comment. A disclaimer: I don’t know the situation at Williams first hand. I’ve visited the college half a dozen times over the years. My nephew is a graduate, and I attended his graduation some years ago. More recently I was an invited speaker at Williams after the NAS published What Does Bowdoin Teach? How a Contemporary Liberal Arts College Shapes Students. And I have had some contact with current Williams students and faculty members. But from what I do know, I would venture the guess that President Falk is apprehensive about the possibility of strong campus protest rooted in racial grievance. Perhaps he foresaw something like what happened at California State University, Los Angeles on February 25, when student protesters violently disrupted Breitbart news editor Ben Shapiro’s talk on “When Diversity Becomes a Problem.”
Many elite colleges have been roiled by such protest in recent months, including nearby Dartmouth. And Williams itself has a history in recent years of racial grievance protests. In at least one case, many Williams students believed the precipitating incident was staged—another one of those “hoax crimes” that are epidemic on college campuses.
Some students at Williams are primed to take offense. The Venker disinvitation in October demonstrated that. President Falk might well have made the practical judgment that the heat he might take for disinviting Derbyshire would be more tolerable than the disruptions he would face if radical students seized on Derbyshire’s visit as an occasion to launch a major protest. I speculate, of course, and President Falk’s own explanation of the disinvitation says nothing about practical trade-offs. He explains his action as purely and simply a matter of principle.
Mr. Derbyshire is possibly suited to the role of sacrificial lamb. He is a figure who has no meaningful base of support—having been written out of the community of mainstream conservatives in 2012 after he published “The Talk: Nonblack Version.” He publishes on a very marginal website called VDARE (named for Virginia Dare, the first white born in North America), and he lives, by his own account, “entirely, and somewhat precariously, by the pen.” Disinviting him was unlikely to unleash storms of protests from outraged conservatives.
He is also a soft target in the sense that he is among those people who self-consciously position themselves on the outside edge of polite society by cultivating intellectual eccentricity. What is a man who had written books about prime numbers, harmonic series, and the history of algebra doing offering acerbic advice on race relations? At least in part, he was testing the limits.
When President Falk says of some of Mr. Derbyshire’s writings that they are “the kind of material I would expect to see distributed by organizations such as the Ku Klux Klan,” he misses the mark. The Klan presumably would have no use for the Derbyshire who says at the beginning of his infamous essay, “The Talk,” that American blacks are fellow citizens, “with the same rights and obligations as yourself, [and] any individual black is entitled to the same courtesies you would extend to a nonblack citizen.”
Derbyshire’s essay is not a racist rant; it does not aim at provoking violence; it is rather an ill-judged exercise in truth-telling about the fears that he and many other whites have about blacks. Read as such, there is much in it that Williams College students of all races could benefit from reading and discussing. It would surely anger many students, but meeting that anger with self-control and reasoned refutation would be a far more powerful corrective to underlying racial animus than any number of diversity seminars.
Of course, the students who invited Derbyshire to Williams didn’t ask him to rehearse “The Talk.” He was going to speak on immigration.
By attacking Mr. Derbyshire, President Falk ran low risk. Critics of the decision from the start had to disavow Mr. Derbyshire’s actual views. “Contemptible,” is how Jonathan Adler described those views in The Washington Post. “Despicable,” was the adjective supplied by Henry Reichman, chair of the AAUP’s Committee A on Academic Freedom and Tenure. No one is going to go to the mat to defend a man so far lost to the norms of contemporary debate over race.
And yet, by labeling this man’s views “hate speech,” President Falk has conferred on them the subversive power that is acquired by all suppressed ideas. Rather than have them put out in the open for reasoned examination, they have been hidden away as too dangerous to behold. Not hidden so far, however, that anyone will have trouble finding and reading them. They will be read now by Williams students as words magically charged with the energy of forbidden knowledge.
As it happens, in 2010 the Black Law Students’ Association (BLSA) of the University of Pennsylvania Law School invited Mr. Derbyshire to speak on the question, “Should the government play a role in eliminating racial disparities in education and employment?” In his speech Mr. Derbyshire stated explicitly his belief “that racial disparities in education and employment have their origin in biological differences between the human races.” The BLSA did not think a line had been crossed: they gave Mr. Derbyshire a respectful hearing.
But leaving Mr. Derbyshire aside, the real task that faces all of us concerned with the quality of higher education in the United States is to restore that “extended dialog” that President Falk says he doesn’t wish to have. I give President Falk this much credit: He did not hide behind the wall of silence that the leaders of Scripps College did when they disinvited George Will.
But 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 this Monday by our having on campus a speaker that many of us regard as a purveyor of foolish and hurtful views on race. I would not have chosen Mr. 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 afterwards. Seldom in life will you get another chance as good as this one to hear first-hand 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 Mr. 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.