Our Opinion: Keep free speech free of politics

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When students return to Williams College this fall, the Williams Initiative for Israel (WIFI), will be a registered student organization. As it should be — but the story behind the group's struggle to achieve that status is a disturbing one.

The intent of founders was to provide an organization that would provide a pro-Israel message to balance what they regarded as a general anti-Israel perspective on campus (Eagle, June 2.) On April 23, the student government at Williams, called the College Council, voted 13-8 against granting WIFI official recognition, although WIFI complied with all student bylaws. This was the first time in more than a decade that a group meeting all requirements was denied recognition. The vote was conducted by secret ballot and there was no livestream of Council meeting as is customary, denying the transparency students need to judge the Council's decisions.

Opponents of WIFI's recognition as a student organization tossed out the loaded word "genocide" far too freely in The Eagle story when describing the behavior of Israel and the goal of WIFI in defending Israel. While the United Nations has harshly criticized Israel for some of its actions, most recently in late February when investigators accused Israeli troops of shooting unarmed civilians during mass protests at the border with Gaza in 2018, it has not formally accused Israel of genocide. Students and others who believe the nation is guilty of genocide have the right to their opinion, but to claim, as did one WIFI opponent quoted in The Eagle, that "this campus should exclude and suppress pro-genocide discourse" is unfair to a student group that has in no way shown itself to be "pro-genocide." It is also distressing to learn that students critical of WIFI were subjected to threatening emails and messages from outside the Williams community. This reflects the hateful tenor of much of our public discourse.

The April dispute achieved some national notoriety, and there was an implication in an Eagle story that Williams President Maud Mendel was influenced by the right-wing media, Jewish organizations and free speech advocates when she stepped in with other Williams administrators to grant WIFI status as a student organization. However, Ms. Mendel expressed her disappointment with the decision on May 3, before the controversy fully erupted, stating online that "The transcript of the debate and vote indicates that the decision was made on political grounds," adding that the College Council vote violated the college's anti-discrimination policies. The administration was able to reverse the Council's decision using a parallel process for approval outlined in the college's student handbook.

It is clear that WIFI was punished by the College Council for espousing views that were politically incorrect on campus. Unfortunately, this is all too common on college campuses today, with organizations and speakers — almost exclusively with conservative viewpoints — being routinely silenced. The right to free speech is a critical piece of our philosophy as Americans, and it is particularly necessary on college campuses where students should be exposed to all viewpoints and not protected from those that they find distasteful. President Mendel and administrators stood up for this position at Williams, and going forward, we encourage Williams students to not only show tolerance for viewpoints other than their own but to try to understand the motivation and rationale for those viewpoints. They may not feel any different afterward, but the process is educational.

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