“If liberty means anything at all, it means the right to tell people what they do not want to hear,” proclaims the cheery header of The Freedom Project website. Further down, the website reads: “The Freedom Project at Wellesley is devoted to the promotion of freedom of expression, pluralism and tolerance on campus and in the greater world.”
The Freedom Project is one of many organizations and individuals in Wellesley’s long history of promoting intolerance in the name of free speech. It cannot be denied that many of the events sponsored by the Project, including those hosted by human rights activists, have brought insightful conversation to campus about the importance of free speech and pluralism. On its website, the Project reiterates its commitment to ensuring freedom for oppressed people around the globe, such as Indigenous people experiencing colonialism, political dissidents in authoritarian regimes and LGBTQ+ individuals seeking freedom of self-expression. At the same time, other speakers have brought harm to students, with opinions that seek to suppress and diminish their freedom to exist in a safe space without core aspects of their identity being questioned.
Most notable of the Project’s missteps is when former Northwestern professor and bioethicist Dr. Alice Dreger arrived to speak at Wellesley in 2018. Dreger was met with overwhelming student backlash for statements she had made in the past supporting the autogynephilia theory, which proposes that trans women exist due to “a male’s propensity to be sexually aroused by the thought of himself as a female.” Her defense continued to perpetuate views that students found harmful — and yet The Freedom Project decided that the correct course of action was to extend a second invitation to Dreger the following year.
This was not the only time The Freedom Project invited speakers who made students feel uncomfortable or unsafe. In 2017, the Project invited cultural critic and former Northwestern professor Laura Kipnis. Her talk entitled “Sexual Paranoia Comes to Campus (Intellectual Freedom Takes a Curtain Call)” spoke about how Title IX laws and academia’s approach regarding sexual assault have become “draconian,” giving young women a “skyrocketing sense of their own vunerability.” In response, Sexual Assault Awareness for Everyone (SAAFE), a student organization on campus, released a video objecting to Kipnis’s points and raising concerns about the implications of repealing current Title IX laws and the dangers it could pose for vulnerable students. Cushman released a statement on social media declaring Wellesley students as “tough-minded and crazy smart. But not the ones that made that video.” He later released an apology. Cushman’s response comes off as especially insensitive towards a group of students who felt their freedoms — including not having to worry about being sexually assaulted — were endangered.
The issue extends far beyond the Freedom Project. the recent debacle with the College allowing Wellesley for Life to bring Kristan Hawkins, a pro-life speaker who has expressed transphobic and ableist views on Twitter, to campus, demonstrates that little has been done since 2019 to take accountability or prevent the presence of people espousing views that pose extensive harm to students. Rather than apologizing for the harm the administration’s inaction has caused in the past or present, President Paula Johnson “respect[ed] the right of [Wellesley for Life] to choose her as its speaker.”
We think it is equally important for President Johnson to respect the rights of students who are transgender, who have had abortions and who are not able-bodied to feel safe on their college campus. Furthermore, Wellesley for Life should take accountability for bringing someone on campus whose presence was deeply distressing to their fellow classmates.
Whether years ago or last week, these talks may very well bring overlooked conversations to campus and provide students with a new perspective on issues. However, when these talks, when injected into mainstream discussion, also threaten the safety and legitimacy of students and their voices, it is time to reevaluate if these speakers are really spreading the theme of “freedom of expression” on campus.
We propose a dual vetting system for future speakers at the College, regardless of which organization brings them to campus, involving the Office of Student Involvement (OSI) and the College Government Committee on Organization Recognition Affairs (CORA). The criteria for allowing future speakers on campus is simple: “Wellesley’s policies strongly prohibit discrimination and harassment based on sex, gender identity or expression, and sexual orientation, among other legally protected bases, and Wellesley requires that all student-invited speakers be advised in advance of Wellesley’s commitment to nondiscrimination and diversity on our campus,” according to President Johnson’s own email statement.
The Freedom Project may be approaching its demise, but its flawed conceptualization of unfettered “freedom” has remained pervasive among certain groups on campus, as well as the administration’s responses to harm inflicted by speakers. With the Project’s end and Wellesley for Life’s recent choice in speaker, it is more dire than ever to prevent future harm — which, contrary to what these groups might lead you to believe, is possible at the same time as continuing to uphold the human rights, pluralism and individual freedom that they so strongly advocate for.