Student group ignites tension over free speech at Williams College

WILLIAMSTOWN — At graduation Sunday, Williams College celebrates achievement, but also closes a semester in which a divisive debate raised questions of free speech and drew national notice.

A request by students to create a group supportive of Israel was rejected by the student government, the College Council, in late April, amid accusations that the group's beliefs did not fit the moral values of the student body.

In the face of complaints from national right-leaning news outlets, Jewish organizations and free speech groups, the college's president and administration intervened, ultimately reversing the rejection in mid-May.

When the campus comes back to life this fall, the Williams Initiative for Israel, or WIFI, will be a registered student organization, having full access to funding and services available to official student groups.

But along the way, its birth sparked debates over pro-Israeli thought in the United States, scrutiny of how student groups win approval and the nature of campus political debate and free expression.

Student Molly Berenbaum, the group's founder and interim president, said that granting WIFI official status gives those who hold pro-Israel beliefs the right to express their views — just like any other student organization.

"Fundamentally, we're really no different from any other political or cultural or advocacy group here on campus," said Berenbaum. The group seeks to bring a more "balanced conversation" to campus regarding the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, she said.

In a move called unprecedented, the council removed students' names from minutes of proceedings. And the final vote on WIFI's status was held by secret ballot, a move that limited transparency amid calls for steps to protect student safety.

Steve Miller, a professor of mathematics, said that denying WIFI official status posed a threat to diverse thought and intellectual growth at Williams.

"This is not an institution of indoctrination," Miller said. "This is a larger problem of shutting down discourse that you disagree with. We are limiting speech, and when you limit speech, you limit the ability to grow and to learn."

Mohazzab Abdullah, a student who spoke against WIFI at meetings, said such rhetoric is similar to treating free speech like a "buzzword."

"Free speech arguments need to be qualified," Abdullah said. "I think that this campus should exclude and suppress pro-genocide discourse."

Serapia Kim, a council member who voted against WIFI becoming an official group, said the debate should not be framed as a matter of promoting free speech on campus.

"It reveals how amoral academic discussions have become and how students and faculty alike see words as a neutral mode of communication," Kim said. "To have a club in defense of a state whose existence is based on the genocide of Palestinians is to undermine the safety and the humanity of Palestinian people, especially those on campus."

Various national organizations jumped in, from Breitbart, to Jewish news organizations such as The Jewish Journal, to college free speech organizations like the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education.

The group's mission became a flashpoint. Its stated purpose: "To support Israel and the pro-Israel campus community, as well as to educate the College on issues concerning Israel and the Middle East."

Typically, it only takes a portion of Tuesday night council meetings to discuss and vote on proposals for student groups. But things were much more difficult for WIFI.

The debate began April 16, when WIFI submitted its request for official status, which was tabled and reopened for discussion April 23.

The council voted 13-8, with one abstention, against granting WIFI official recognition, though WIFI complied with all council bylaws — the first time that a group meeting all requirements was turned down in over a decade.

Maud Mandel, the college president, and administrators soon stepped in, voicing disappointment over the vote in early May. On May 14, administrators and a student government representative approved the request in a parallel approval process listed in the college's handbook for students.

Mandel, the administration and WIFI were able to reverse the council's vote because of preexisting campus policies stating a different path to gaining official group status.

Though most requests to become an official organization are determined by council vote, the handbook outlines a different method involving a committee of administrators and a council representative. According to Director of Media Relations Greg Shook, the college administration and WIFI opted to use this path.

The debates

Debates during the April 16 and April 23 council meetings were mostly between WIFI representatives and students opposed to the group. Speakers included Palestinian students, who spoke of personal experiences of trauma in relation to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

Students reported receiving threatening emails and messages from people outside Williamstown in apparent response to comments the students had made in previous council meetings.

Students opposed to WIFI said the group failed to distinguish itself from other organizations on campus that discuss Israeli and Israeli-Palestinian issues.

In a commentary submitted to The Williams Record, the campus newspaper, 11 students, including council members Jesus Payan and Kai Soto-Dessen, wrote that it was impossible to separate one's support for Israel's right to exist from what they said was the Israeli's government's violent practices of "genocide" and "colonialism."

Though the authors affirmed support for students to organize on campus and for a Jewish home in the Israeli-Palestinian region, they wrote, " we cannot, in good conscience, fund student groups that refuse to acknowledge the basic humanity of those on the opposing side of the issue."

Student organizers of WIFI said they simply wanted to start the group in order to provide a pro-Israel perspective they feel was not fully represented in campus conversations on Israeli-Palestinian issues.

In a separate op-ed submitted to The Record, the founders of WIFI said that the April 23 meeting failed to give their side the opportunity to "properly clarify the mission of the club."

Berenbaum and other group founders, Gavin Small and Maxwell Plonsker, said WIFI "aims simply to promote education about Israel, celebrate Israeli cultural events, advocate for campus recognition of Israel's right to exist and allow Williams students the opportunity to form their position regarding Israel for themselves."

College responds

The council's initial rejection drew reaction from Mandel, other administrators, media and national free speech groups. Critics termed rejection of WIFI an attack on free speech and suggested the presence of anti-Semitism on campus.

David Bernstein, a law professor at George Mason University, said opposition to WIFI showed "ignorance and antisemitism amongst Williams students" and he filed a complaint with the federal Department of Education.

On May 3, Mandel cited disappointment over the council's vote in an online statement, affirming WIFI's right to access "most services available to student groups, including the use of college spaces for meetings and events." Mandel later revised this statement, replacing "most" with "all."

"The transcript of the debate and vote indicate that the decision was made on political grounds," Mandel wrote. She also said the vote violated the college's anti-discrimination guidelines.

Steve Klass, vice president of campus life, said the council had not followed its own bylaws.

The council's co-presidents declined to comment. Two council members said they believe the decision lacked due process.

Council members Solly Kasab and Lance Ledet took issue with the discussion and voting process.

"The way the April 23rd meeting was run was ridiculous," said Kasab, vice president of communications for the council, as well as treasurer of WIFI.

Kasab and Ledet said the way one co-president called on speakers, favoring one side of the discussion, was unfair. And both found it troubling that only three council members spoke during the meeting and that votes were secret.

Ledet termed the decision "absolutely politically motivated" and voted for WIFI to become a club. Ledet sees larger issues as well.

"Regardless of individual beliefs over whether or not WIFI should have become a club, I think everyone can agree that the debate highlighted how unrepresentative College Council is of the broader student body."

Looking ahead

Berenbaum, WIFI's interim president, regrets that the group wasn't able to go through a normal approval process — and was created through another means.

"At first, I was concerned that it might be seen as some weird alternate that was set up just to get this pushed through without student consent or something like that," she said. "But because it is the official way of doing things [that] changes it a little bit."

Abdullah, who opposed the group, says the approval overturned a democratic vote in council.

"Democratic bodies don't exist to make sure that a club that ticks all the boxes on a checklist is ensured approval — that's an administrative task that a subcommittee of [the College Council] or even an admin member could do," Abdullah said. "WIFI will operate as an [registered student organization] as it would have without recognition; that's not what bothers me. It's that the college community's decision to morally exclude a pro-genocidal state group through democratic debate and vote was overturned behind closed doors."

Ledet disagrees, saying that the administration alerted WIFI to the existence of the other path to becoming a registered student organization. That, he says, "was simply the administration reminding a group of students of a process that is open to all students."

Seth Wax, the college's Jewish chaplain, said the nature of conversations over WIFI shows that the campus needs to seek ways to handle conflict.

"I think the recent episode has shown that we have work to do in helping each other listen to competing and seemingly contradictory perspectives on Israel and Palestine, assume goodwill during heated exchanges, refrain from denigration and demonization, and to find ways to transform conflict in a way that ultimately builds understanding and connection," Wax said.

Wax said he sees an opportunity to build community.

"I am looking forward to pursuing that goal, alongside dedicated colleagues, once students return from summer break," he said.