A senior official at Williams College threatened me.
I was a senior at Williams College at the time. I was the president of Uncomfortable Learning, an organized club thoroughly committed to protecting and defending the freedom of students to ask and seek answers to unsettling questions. My club invited controversial speakers to Williams like Charles Murray, Christina Hoff Sommers, John Christy, K. C. Johnson, David French, and more. I invited mostly conservative speakers to Williams because my college president, Adam F. Falk, threatened the health and safety of values I care deeply about.
I spoke to Adam face to face, in his office, in late January of 2016. He told me, “I know you’re inviting Charles Murray.” At this point, I had neither made a formal invitation to Charles nor shared with anyone my intent to bring him to Williams. I had only corresponded with Charles via email. When I asked Adam how he knew this private information, he replied, “I have ways of finding out.”
I wanted Adam to respect my agency and support my club, so I broke eye contact with him and let it go.
Adam told me that he thought debate was important, my work worthwhile, that I should proceed but with caution. I thanked him for his time. We shook hands. I left his office.
Three weeks later, Adam invalidated my invitation and banned former National Review columnist John Derbyshire from Williams. Adam’s words endangered my personal safety when, in The Washington Post, he associated my decision to invite Derbyshire with “actively destroying” the Williams community. The vitriol directed at me in reference to this comment from Adam was immense and especially keen. It lasted for months.
Adam casually misinformed the press and the public every time he spoke to them about me or my work. “Whatever our own views may be,” he wrote in an op-ed for the school paper, “we should be active in bringing to campus speakers whose opinions are different from our own.” Yet he enforced censorship to prevent bad press.
To a reporter at CNN, Adam minimized problems that mean a lot to me: “[Zach] is often critical of me and the college administration, but approaches our dialogues thoughtfully and respectfully. While at some moments we've disagreed on appropriate processes, we share a commitment to free expression of ideas on campus.” That’s why Adam refused to shake my hand at a basketball game.
Adam even claimed success and willfully mischaracterized events I’d written about and taken flak for — events I organized that he never attended in an op-ed for The Washington Post shortly before resigning as president of Williams College.
No matter the circumstance — Adam told the press that he and his administration were doing a great job of increasing viewpoint diversity at Williams. In reality, Adam and his administration were failing miserably. Every time I pressed Adam’s administration with tough questions, they either deflected evasively or tried to hand-check me. By the end of my sophomore year, Adam had grown determined to blunt my effectiveness. He instructed administration officials — some of whom manage press access, others who involve campus security — to impose restrictions. I was ordered by one official to report to an administrator in his office, in the Office of Student Life before sending out any speaker invitations. In case I resisted, students were now blocked from booking space online to host large events where press would also be welcome.
To assert total authority after barring Derbyshire from Williams, Adam unilaterally enacted and made explicit a targeted policy affirming his power to rescind any invitation and effectively ban any speaker from Williams.
So, if I hoped to find any success, I basically had to meet with this official every time I wanted to act in my capacity as president of Uncomfortable Learning. He’d been working at Williams for a few years but he always sounded like Adam’s latest hire, his right-hand man for communications — gruff, forceful, eager to call me into his office to make clear Adam’s wishes, arrest my assent, and remind me of the assignments under his jurisdiction.
All of this because I wanted to spark debate, explore difficult ideas, and ask challenging questions about issues in the news that really affect peoples’ lives.
This abuse of power forced free expression to take a back seat to Adam’s comfort — so I decided to report on it. Speaking to the official I regularly confronted, I thoughtfully expressed my sharp focus on writing and exposing Adam’s attempts to keep me under his thumb.
The official — who would interrupt me frequently and bloviate to subvert my questions — planted both hands firmly on his desk, rose from his seat, and facing me, leaned forward.
“Zach, Adam Falk is the president of this college,” he said. “He’s the boss and I’ve spoken with him. You best be careful what you write about how you disagree with him. Is that clear to you?”
“I understand what you want me to do,” I replied.
After walking out of his office, I wrote down what he said to me and elected to write about his mistake at a later time. For any leader to behave that way is disgraceful. We live in a democracy where everyone has a right to freely express themselves. Any leader who uses intimidation to silence people who question them should be opposed. As a journalist, I value intensely my right to interrogate stories that matter to people.
I urge everyone who cares about the First Amendment to protect and defend freedom of the press against all adversaries — today, tomorrow, and every day.
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