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Professors at elite college pen disturbing rejection of free speech, aim to silence debate on campus

Wellesley College from a distance. (Yowlong/Flicker's Creative Commons)

An influential faculty committee at Wellesley College, a prestigious women’s liberal arts college in Massachusetts, is calling for the school to stop inviting speakers they say cause students “harm” by presenting their ideas.

In an e-mail sent throughout Wellesley College, Wellesley’s Commission for Ethnicity, Race, and Equity (CERE) says it opposes allowing speakers with “controversial and objectionable beliefs” to speak at the college, even though the committee says it believes free speech “is essential to a liberal arts education.”

The e-mail was obtained by the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education, a group that promotes free speech on college campuses, and has been posted on the organization’s website.

CERE said in the e-mail speakers with controversial ideas “impose on the liberty” of members of the Wellesley community.

“There is no doubt that the speakers in question impose on the liberty of students, staff, and faculty at Wellesley,” said CERE in the e-mail. “We are especially concerned with the impact of speakers’ presentations on Wellesley students, who often feel the injury most acutely and invest time and energy in rebutting the speakers’ arguments. Students object in order to affirm their humanity. This work is not optional; students feel they would be unable to carry out their responsibilities as students without standing up for themselves.”

CERE also said the alleged harm done to students by speakers invited to the college could be avoided if free speech were limited.

“What is especially disturbing about this pattern of harm is that in many cases, the damage could have been avoided,” wrote CERE. “The speakers who appeared on campus presented ideas that they had published, and those who hosted the speakers could certainly anticipate that these ideas would be painful to significant portions of the Wellesley community.”

CERE suggests three criteria be met before a speaker is invited to campus.

“First, those who invite speakers to campus should consider whether, in their zeal for promoting debate, they might, in fact, stifle productive debate by enabling the bullying of disempowered groups. … Second, standards of respect and rigor must remain paramount when considering whether a speaker is actually qualified for the platform granted by an invitation to Wellesley. … Third, faculty and administrators should step up in defense of themselves and all members of the Wellesley community. The responsibility to defend the disempowered does not rest solely with students, and the injuries suffered by students, faculty, and staff are not contained within the specific identity group in question; they ripple throughout our community and prevent Wellesley from living out its mission.”

The letter is signed “In solidarity” by faculty members Diego Arcineagas, Beth DeSombre, Brenna Greer, Soo Hong, Michael Jeffries, and Layli Maparyan.

(Photo by Yowlong. Made available by Flickr's Creative Commons.)

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