The management of the private Williams College is being asked to overrule the viewpoint discrimination adopted by the school’s student government when it banished pro-Israel opinion by refusing to grant club recognition to a student group.
The Foundation for Individual Rights in Education points out that the school is private, so it is not obligated to follow First Amendment requirements as a state school would be required.
But FIRE officials point out that the school previously has promised to be committed to freedom of expression, which amounts to a commitment to the same goals.
“Student governments should encourage more students to speak and debate ideas rather than hamper their ability to do so,” said Sarah McLaughlin, a senior program manager for the organization.
“President [Maud] Mandel must immediately remind the College Council and the entire campus community that viewpoint discrimination is wrong – especially at a campus committed to free expression.”
It was that council that refused to acknowledge the Williams Initiative for Israel organization.
Then the council concealed notes of its recent decision-making meetings from “public view.”
“Prospective student group WIFI requested recognition as a registered student organization at the CC’s April 16, 2019, meeting, and discussions were tabled until the next session,” FIRE explained. But then, in an “anonymous vote,” the CC refused the club’s request.
One opponent to the club claimed, “there are ways of supporting Israeli statehood that don’t support the occupation or human rights abuses against Palestinians, but there are ways of doing that that definitely do … [the club’s] inability to take a political stance with reference to those issues was incredibly problematic, and I think it came out during several parts of the conversation.”
Another specifically identified the club’s viewpoint as the problem.
“I think that you need sort of a special consideration and debate when it comes to voting for RSOs that affiliate themselves with a state involved in such a conflict,” the anonymous participant said.
The club itself had tried to correct the misconceptions, explaining its members want to “engage in educational initiatives, hold events, bring speakers to campus from a wide variety of political backgrounds … and just put out more information so that students can look at all available info and make a decision for othemselves.”
The council voted 13-8 against the WIFI organization.
“The student newspaper noted several anomalies in the student government’s review process: members voted anonymously, speakers’ names were not included in the minutes, and the meeting was not livestreamed. What is known about this process is that members of the student government objected to the group’s pro-Israel views,” FIRE reported.
Molly Berenbaum, of the WIFI organization, said, “The Williams College Council has rejected students’ rights to free speech and free assembly, and we are thankful to FIRE for supporting a group of students whose voice has been actively suppressed.”
“Williams College cannot in good faith make commitments to free expression if an agent acting on its behalf – in this case, the college council – can simply choose to violate them,” McLaughlin said.
The school’s chief even admitted in a statement that the WIFI organization faced discrimination based on “political grounds.”
At that time, she wrote, “We’ve always expected the council to follow its own processes and bylaws. I’m disappointed that that didn’t happen in this instance.”
FIRE noted the schools own policy states it “is committed to being a community in which all ranges of opinion and belief can be expressed and debated…”
“Having made these commitments, Williams is legally and morally bound to uphold them,” FIRE explained.
The advocacy group said, “In discussing matters of societal and political importance, one would be hard-pressed to find an opinion or position that is not controversial to someone. By refusing to grant WIFI recognition because some members of the campus community are opposed to its real or perceived stances, the CC restricts free and open dialogue on campus, to the detriment of Williams students’ expressive rights.
“We hope to soon praise Williams College for granting registered student organization status to WIFI and preserving freedom of expression on its campus,” FIRE said.