To Students at a Prestigious College, “Free Speech” Means the Freedom to Silence Supporters of Israel

May 22, 2019 | K.C. Johnson
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Last month, when a group of students at Williams College attempted to form the Williams Initiative for Israel (WIFI), a new organization, the student council voted against granting it official recognition. K.C. Johnson, having examined the video of the first of the two meetings during which the council reached this decision, and a complete transcript of the second, finds evidence of blatant disregard for democratic principles, “appalling” ignorance of Middle Eastern history, and statements dramatically minimizing the scope of the Holocaust. He writes:

Shutting down the council’s usual livestream [for the second session] was justified, one college legislator noted, to accommodate “the students who are afraid to speak out because of the pro-Israel lobby in this country and the things that they are known to achieve when it comes to their campus activism.” A colleague presented the obvious response: “Why are people so worried about the things they’re going to say? Are they that hateful?”

The latter question proved prescient. Three themes dominated the council debate. The first was an attempt to use the powers of student government, which previously had recognized a branch of [the radical anti-Israel group] Students for Justice in Palestine, to limit campus discourse about Israel. . . . Though constricting the spectrum of acceptable positions on Israel would seem to undermine principles of free speech, one critic of WIFI argued otherwise, [asserting that] two sides should present “clashing free ideas,” after which the council should “vote in [favor of] what we think are the best ideas and . . . vote out what we think are ideas worthy of being discarded.” Defining free speech as tyranny of the majority is a mainstream view on too many contemporary campuses. . . .

One student acknowledged the “horrible conditions that Jewish people experienced” during the Holocaust, but claimed that Palestinians currently were “even experiencing worse.” Why? Unlike the seemingly unending Israeli occupation of the West Bank, “the purpose of these [World War II] ghettos were basically to control, segregate, and separate the Jewish people for [only] short periods of time.” . . .

As the decision generated national and international attention, . . . eleven Williams students wrote in the Williams Record, the campus newspaper, . . . that WIFI supporters violated a condition of “free speech on campus” by not showing “basic respect” for their viewpoint—presumably by disbanding the group.

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