Letter: Exercising free speech at Williams


To the editor of THE EAGLE:

Although the Eagle's editorial Saturday on the dispute over awarding an honorary degree to former New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg offers a substantial defense of that award, it also betrays some confusion on the key question of principle. That question is whether it is reasonable to object to the awarding of honorary degrees, and what form the objections should take. The Eagle comes down of both sides of the issue.

The paper's first response is to praise Mr. Bloomberg for his virtues and accomplishments, arguing that he is indeed worthy of honor. Those of us on the faculty and in the student body who see stop-and-frisk as a form of racial profiling, and who believe that racialized incarceration is among the great civil rights issues of our day, see things differently. The questions raised in such disagreements are too complex to be resolved in a brief letter to the editor, but we should all be able to agree that debates over these matters are healthy, important, and legitimate. Yet that is what the paper's second response denies.

In its final paragraph, the Eagle's editorial (like its earlier editorial commentary on this spring's various commencement disputes) suggests that challenges to the selection of particular honorees are, as such, embarrassments, attempts to protect students by allowing them to hear only "sanitized" speakers -- as if commencement dissent were an assault on free speech and the exchange of ideas. We, in contrast, consider our effort an exercise of free speech and a contribution to intellectual exchange.

We have made clear from the beginning that we have no objection to Mr. Bloomberg's speaking on campus and that we would welcome him on another occasion. What we object to is the decision by Williams College to single him out for honor and to pay tribute to him before a captive audience.

If the Eagle wishes to disagree with the substance of that judgment, that is its prerogative. For the paper to object on principle to our exercise of judgment, however, is to suggest that the role of students and faculty is to keep their mouths shut and accept whatever is handed to them. That may be the Eagle's model of free speech and its blueprint for academic life; it is not ours.



The writer, Williams class of 1956, is professor of American Civilization in the Department of Political Science at Williams College.


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