FIRE Calls on Williams College President to Approve Pro-Israel Student Group

Human Rights Council
RIZWAN TABASSUM/AFP/Getty
ALANA MASTRANGELO

The Foundation for Individual Rights in Education (FIRE) is calling on the president of Williams College to grant club status to a student group that was denied recognition by the school’s student government last month due to having pro-Israel viewpoints.

Williams College President Maud S. Mandel condemned the school’s student government last month after it refused to approve the student group, “Williams Initiative for Israel,” on the basis of its pro-Israel views, but FIRE says the response from the college’s administration falls short.

“The president of Williams College says she is ‘disappointed’ that the student government refused to grant official club recognition to a student group based solely on its pro-Israel viewpoint,” said FIRE in a statement on Wednesday, “She’s expressed concerns about the group’s treatment — but more must be done.”

FIRE says that it is calling on the college president to grant club recognition to Williams Initiative for Israel, and to take steps toward combating viewpoint discrimination at the school.

“Student governments should encourage more students to speak and debate ideas rather than hamper their ability to do so,” said FIRE Senior Program Officer Sarah McLaughlin, “President 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.”

The student government at Williams College held a meeting on April 23, where it voted 13-8 with one abstention against recognizing the pro-Israel student group as an official registered student organization with the school, according to the student newspaper, the Williams Record.

The report added that most of the debate over Williams Initiative for Israel was centered around the group’s stated mission and purpose, which was “to support Israel and the pro-Israel campus community, as well as to educate the College on issues concerning Israel and the Middle East.”

“What is known about this process is that members of the student government objected to the group’s pro-Israel views,” said FIRE in its statement, “Mandel said she is ‘disappointed’ with the student government’s decision and offered that the club can operate without the student government granting recognition.”

“Her later statement implies that the club can still access ‘all’ resources available to recognized student groups,” added FIRE, “but the viewpoint discrimination created by this two-tiered system does not square with the college’s own free speech commitments.”

Williams Initiative for Israel group member Molly Berenbaum said that “students on this campus often cannot express views that go against the dominant opinion,” adding that the school “has rejected students’ rights to free speech and free assembly.”

The advocacy group states that while it recognizes the school is a private college, and therefore, is not bound to upholding the First Amendment rights of its students, it is, however, “morally obligated to honor its promise that Williams students can enjoy ‘the unfettered exchange of diverse points of view.'”

FIRE uses a “Speech Code Rating” system which is applied to most universities, informing readers of the organization’s opinion of “the degree to which free speech is curtailed at a particular institution.”

An institution will receive a “green light” rating if it has not been caught hindering free speech on its campus, a “yellow light” rating if its policies appear to restrict a limited amount of protected expression, and a “red light” rating if the school has at least one policy that clearly and substantially restricts freedom of speech.

“Williams is deliberating on new policies addressing freedom of speech on its campus,” states FIRE, “Today, the college earns a ‘yellow light’ rating for free speech in FIRE’s Spotlight on Speech Codes 2019 report for maintaining five problematic policies that could stifle free speech.”

You can follow Alana Mastrangelo on Twitter at @ARmastrangelo and on Instagram.

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