I read the article, and was actually very impressed, because what I saw was students living out the distinction I drew in my Academic Freedom versus Academic Legitimacy article (previously blogged about in reference to Steven Salaita, the University of North Carolina, and the Anti-Vaccination Movement). Take a look at what the student protesters said:
Emily O’Brien ’18 created another Facebook event, “One Step Forward and We Keep Going,” on the same day in order to organize protests to the talk.The students all make it abundantly evident that they respect the right of Uncomfortable Learning to invite Venker, and were not demanding that the college "ban" her (Williams administrators confirmed that there had been no such request). There were no misguided quotes about "free speech not including hate speech" or anything of that sort. Rather, their criticism was of the idea that Venker represented the sort of speaker whose ideas were intellectually sophisticated enough to be legitimate entries into an intellectual discussion. Presumably this idea is entirely uncontroversial in the abstract: if a student group invited a young earth creationist to lecture on geology, or a Klansman to speak on racial justice, most people would I hope hold the group's decision in contempt (even while not challenging their "right" to do it). As I observe in my article, the decision to invite a speaker to campus signifies something less than "I agree with the speaker" and something more than "the speaker is capable of forming words into grammatically intelligible sentences." The concept of academic legitimacy reflects an appraisal of the boundaries of reasonable scholarly discourse, and it is perfectly fair game to criticize a group for (allegedly) straying beyond those boundaries so long as this criticism does not demand bans or sanctions as a remedy for the breach.
O’Brien emphasized that the goal of the protests was not to have the event shut down, but rather to express dissent from Venker’s ideas. According to her, many protestors had planned to attend the event and to engage with Venker during the question-and-answer session.
“The point of the event was not to censor her beliefs,” said O’Brien. “It was our rightful emotional and political reaction to something that has been harmful to many groups of people.”
Sam Alterman ’18 helped organize the protest and participated in discussions on both Facebook event pages. He said that the protestors were not seeking to censor Venker but rather disagreeing with the decision to provide her with a platform.
“No one has asked for her writing to be blocked on Purple Air [campus internet],” he said. “We were dissenting from the idea that she is someone we should elevate to a level where we feel that her point of view is relevant enough and intellectually rigorous enough to bring to campus, associate [the College’s] name with her, and give her money.”
Gerardo Garcia ’16, another student who was vocal in protests against Venker, said “While I do not agree with the decision for Suzanne Venker’s visit to Williams, I also acknowledge that people are within their right to request for such a speaker. But I also believe we should be able to freely criticize the reasoning for this decision when we invite someone who only spews hate in her talks and in her writing, while providing no concrete evidence to defend her claims. Venker tells women to become subservient to men, while completely ignoring the issues of domestic violence, equality, and much, much more … Personally, I have no patience to learn about a perspective that has no evidence, attacks women and demonizes the queer community.”
Now, of course, we can argue about whether Venker's arguments really are academically illegitimate or not. The organizers argued that her views are popular ones amongst many segments of the population and that it is therefore worthwhile to engage with them. This has some purchase for me, though it's not a knockout argument (a not-insignificant number of Americans oppose interracial marriage, but it seems like a waste of time to bring in a speaker urging that Loving v. Virginia be overturned). Obviously, the contours of academic legitimacy are open to debate same as anything else; maybe it's wrong to place someone like Venker outside of them (not being familiar with her work, I'm in no position to judge). But so long as that debate occurs as a debate -- free from using the coercive power of the state or college administration to enforce one side's views upon the other -- then academic freedom isn't breached. Say what you will about their substantive evaluations, but as a procedural matter the Williams College protesters did everything exactly as they should, and that's worth commending.