Williams College cancels "Uncomfortable Learning" talk by controversial author John Derbyshire
WILLIAMSTOWN — The president of Williams College has ordered the cancellation of a student-organized speaking engagement by an author characterized by many as a white supremacist.
In a letter to the college community on Thursday, Adam Falk said the views espoused in the writings of John Derbyshire have no place in the school's discourse.
"We have said we wouldn't cancel speakers or prevent the expression of views except in the most extreme circumstances," Falk wrote. "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," he wrote. "Many of his expressions clearly constitute hate speech, and we will not promote such speech on this campus or in our community."
Derbyshire is a former columnist for National Review magazine whose writings have been condemned by some as racist.
The move raised protests from the leader of the student group, Uncomfortable Learning, which had arranged for the appearance scheduled for Monday night.
In an interview with The Eagle, Derbyshire said he reacted to the cancellation with "a shrug."
"The colleges today are dreadful," he said. "Nothing surprises me anymore. Hence the shrug."
He characterized Falk's statement as full of "empty phrases."
The statement also drew condemnation from some who point to freedom of speech, and the rights of students to hear from all sides of any discussion.
Falk acknowledged that viewpoint in his statement.
"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," he wrote. "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."
Zachary Wood, a sophomore at the college and president of Uncomfortable Learning, said that while he respects Falk's decision, he disagrees.
"Falk made an informed decision," said Wood, a political science major. "But I disagree with it because of free speech."
As an African-American, Wood said he is strongly opposed to the positions expressed by Derbyshire, but those views are held by millions of Americans and need to be debated and disproved.
"I disagree with John Derbyshire on just about everything, but I think he should be allowed to speak at Williams College," he said. "We should hear what he has to say, and take him to task for it. I wanted to understand his positions and refute them."
Mary Detloff, spokesperson for Williams College, said Derbyshire's presence would be offensive to many.
"We feel very confident on this decision given that Mr. Derbyshire's writings not only on race, but on women's rights, gay rights and sexual harassment make him unsuited to discussions at Williams College," Detloff said.
Derbyshire, a native of England and a resident of Long Island, N.Y., said he understands that his viewpoints "are not acceptable to Williams College."
Wood said the fireworks are partially a misunderstanding, that Derbyshire was supposed to speak about his support for Donald Trump's presidential candidacy and his views on immigration. The title of the event, Wood noted, was "National Identity: Race, ethnicity and identity in the 21st Century."
Derbyshire said he wasn't aware that they had settled on a topic, "but I'm sure I could have spoken eloquently about that."
He also noted that it is not uncommon to hear debates begin at his speaking events.
"If I do a speaking engagement, you expect to see arguments break out and discussions ensue," he said. "But that's what it's all about."
Derbyshire describes himself in his writings as a "race realist."
After writing about race relations in a piece addressed to young people, he was removed as a contributor to National Review.
Nevertheless, the National Review expressed disappointment in the college's decision.
"John Derbyshire has certainly made statements that many people find objectionable, and his provocative opinions have gotten him into trouble before, including here at National Review," the statement reads. "But there is a difference between expressing opinions as a paid employee and doing so as an invited guest at a college. President Falk needs to be reminded that a college's job is not to determine which ideas are so beyond the pale that they may not even be uttered.
"The answer to speech that offends is more speech," the piece continues. "This dis-invitation shows a liberal arts college trying to immunize itself from all controversial opinions and remain in a 'safe space.' It is to Williams College's shame that President Falk has 'found the line' and banned Derbyshire from speaking."
Derbyshire says that to label him as a white supremacist is a "misinterpretation."
The opinion piece that got Derbyshire in trouble with the National Review was offering tips to young people regarding race relations and safety, in which he wrote that white youths should be cautious in places where there are many African-American people with whom they are unacquainted.
It was written in reaction to statements he saw following the 2012 killing of Trayvon Martin, after which many African-American parents noted that they have to give their children "the talk" about how to stay safe in white America. So Derbyshire wrote this piece as his version of the talk that should be given to white children about staying safe among African-Americans.
First he notes that, in his opinion, there is enough animosity toward whites among the African-American population to warrant concern.
He advised youths to "avoid concentrations of blacks not all known to you personally."
Additionally, his advice was to "stay out of heavily black neighborhoods. 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. Do not attend events likely to draw a lot of blacks. If you are at some public event at which the number of blacks suddenly swells, leave as quickly as possible. Do not settle in a district or municipality run by black politicians."
He also wrote, "The default principle in everyday personal encounters is, that as a fellow citizen, with the same rights and obligations as yourself, any individual black is entitled to the same courtesies you would extend to a non black citizen. That is basic good manners and good citizenship. In some unusual circumstances, however — this default principle should be overridden by considerations of personal safety."
Responding to Eagle questions regarding that opinion, Derbyshire referred to it as "good advice" and "I'll stand by that."
Meanwhile, some Williams College alumni were troubled by the idea of Derbyshire's visit.
Melissa Soule, a recent graduate, sent a statement to The Eagle condemning the student group that invited him and asking for more transparency in the organization.
"White supremacy has no place in the Purple Valley [Williams College]," she wrote, "and I for one would like everyone to know what is going on."