Anti-feminist author disinvited to speak at Williams College because it could be 'harmful'

  • Suzanne Venker was invited to speak as part of a series called 'Uncomfortable Learning' and then disinvited due to concern from some students that the speech could be offensive.

A student group at Williams College invited Suzanne Venker, a conservative author and critic of feminism, to speak Tuesday night, but then rescinded the offer due to serious opposition from other students who may have found her speech offensive.

Venker was invited to participate in a student-run, alumni-funded speaker series called “Uncomfortable Learning.” The program’s mission is to introduce students to controversial voices and differing opinions they might not have been exposed to at a liberal arts college. Her talk was called “One Step Forward, Ten Steps Back: Why Feminism Fails.”

"It is possible that some speech is too harmful to invite to campus."   

The students who run the series decided to cancel the event after other students began posting harsh comments in the Facebook event page. The page has since been deleted, but Zach Wood, co-president of the group, saved one comment from it.

“When you bring a misogynistic, white supremacist men’s rights activist to campus in the name of ‘dialogue’ and ‘the other side,’ you are not only causing actual mental, social, psychological and physical harm to students, but you are also — paying — for the continued dispersal of violent ideologies that kill our black and brown (trans) femme sisters … you are dipping your hands in their blood, Zach Wood,” the comment stated.

After canceling the event, Wood published a post on the Williams Alternative blog expressing his frustration with the “motivated ignorance” of the students who protested the event.

“At Williams, learning (theoretically anyway) begins with confronting challenging ideas,” he wrote. “Tens of millions of Americans espouse Venker’s views. I am, in fact, of the opinion that her arguments deserve trenchant criticism, but to challenge her intellectually and critique her arguments substantively, we must first understand her views.”

Venker, author of books including The War on Men and The Flipside of Feminism, penned an op-ed on Fox News lamenting the group’s decision to cancel her speech:

Despite the fortuitous match between my message and the ‘Uncomfortable Learning Speakers Series,’ my talk was cancelled by the group several days prior to the event.

“Thank you for agreeing to speak,” read the email, “but we’re not going to be able to host this event.”

Though my contact didn’t give a reason, the day before he’d sent me this email: “Dear Ms. Venker, A quick heads up…We’ve been advertising the event, and it’s already stirring a lot of angry reactions among students on campus. We just wanted to make you aware of the current state of students before your presentation…”

When I pressed further as to why the event was being cancelled (though of course I knew why), he conceded that Williams College “has never experienced this kind of resistance” to a campus speaker.

Even the student newspaper, The Williams Record, published an editorial that said Venker should not have come to campus despite her First Amendment right of freedom of speech because it might make people uncomfortable:

In general, the College should not allow speech that challenges fundamental human rights and devalues people based on identity markers, like being a woman. Much of what Venker has said online, in her books and in interviews falls into this category. While free speech is important and there are problems with deeming speech unacceptable, students must not be unduly exposed to harmful stereotypes in order to live and learn here without suffering emotional injury. It is possible that some speech is too harmful to invite to campus. The College should be a safe space for students, a place where people respect others’ identities. Venker’s appearance would have been an invasion of that space.

The Williams administration was quick to distance themselves from the student group’s actions.

“The Williams College administration was not involved in the planning or canceling of the event,” they said in a statement. “In recent years, Williams has hosted many speakers who are controversial. We do not shy away from controversial speakers and what they may bring to the education of our students. We value open dialogue and embrace free expression of a diversity of ideas and opinions.”

Mary Dettloff, spokeswoman for the college, told Campus Reform that the group of students who organize Uncomfortable Learning events is “not an official campus group” and the university “expressed no opinion on her appearance.”

“Many students I have talked to in the last few days are evenly split about this, with some feeling the cancellation was the right thing to do and some thinking it was the wrong thing to do because they were interested in hearing what she had to say and wanted to participate in debating her views,” she said.

This incident comes one month after President Barack Obama made comments that college students should not be “coddled” from opposing viewpoints on their campus.

Follow the author of this article on Twitter: @kylejplantz

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Kyle Plantz
Kyle Plantz | Massachusetts Campus Correspondent

Kyle Plantz was a Campus Correspondent who reported on the political happenings at Boston University.  Since graduating, he is no longer a Campus Correspondent.

5 Articles by Kyle Plantz