Why having free speech at Yale matters

Last November, 5,200 issues of the Yale Free Press, which had been distributed to 11 residential colleges and Swing Space by the paper’s staff, disappeared from all of them, apparently stolen. We find such actions deplorable and shameful in a University that takes seriously its commitment to freedom of the press and free speech.

This incident presents the opportunity to remind the campus about the value the University places on free speech in all of its forms, and about the storied history which informs this philosophy. Yale is lucky to have as a guide one of the seminal documents ever written on free speech in a University — written in the context of highly tumultuous times for Yale and for the nation in the midst of the discourse, debate and protest about the Vietnam War.

The Report of the Committee on Freedom of Expression at Yale (often known as the “Woodward Report,” after Professor C. Vann Woodward, its principal author), published in January 1975, underscores the importance of free speech in fulfilling the purpose of a great university and points to the reason why open opinion must be allowed to flourish. With its clear vision and beautiful expression, the Woodward report has shaped Yale policy on free speech for years. It has been especially useful and relevant on those periodic occasions when some very public campus event has required a reminder of why free speech is so important.

“The history of intellectual growth and discovery clearly demonstrates the need for unfettered freedom, the right to think the unthinkable, discuss the unmentionable, and challenge the unchallengeable. Free speech is a barrier to the tyranny of authoritarian or even majority opinion as to the rightness or wrongness of particular doctrines or thoughts,” the Report reminds us. And it evokes the chilling effect that limiting freedom of expression can have on an intellectual community by emphasizing that “to curtail free expression strikes twice at intellectual freedom, for whoever deprives another of the right to state unpopular views necessarily also deprives others of the right to listen to those views.”

We might add that theft of a publication, like the Yale Free Press, strikes three times at intellectual freedom. It deprives its authors and editors of the right to express controversial views, its supporters of the right to subscribe to those views, and its dissenters the right to debate them in ways that further public discourse.

There are other good reasons why freedom of speech in all its forms must be allowed to thrive. Along with a grand library and a superb faculty, the University’s principal treasure is its diverse student body. For many years Yale has made a concerted effort to gather together the best and brightest from all over the nation and the world, with different intellectual, artistic and social gifts, and with many different ideas, beliefs and philosophies. A part of its expectation is that the synergetic tug of ideas within this community will in itself prove to be illuminating.

When asked in any exit poll, or in any evaluation in later years, what has meant the most to them about Yale, the heterogeneity of the student body and the broad mix of ideas to which they have been exposed have always ranked high on virtually every Yalie’s list. It is a source of pride to the University that its graduates themselves cannot be categorized. Yale has educated George Bush and Sheila Jackson-Lee; John Ashcroft and John Kerry; William Buckley and William Sloane Coffin — and others with much more controversial and radical views, on every side of the spectrum, besides. Any kind of action on the part of any group that detracts from the free expression of ideas, or that aims to suppress controversial thinking, is anathema, not only because it strikes at the heart of a fundamental purpose of the University, but also because it compromises one of its most cherished educational imperatives. We trust that all Yalies will join us in supporting this important principle, and in helping one of the informing principles of Yale College to continue to prosper.

Excerpts of this important document are in the Undergraduate Regulations http://www.yale.edu/yalecollege/publications/uregs.

The full document, well worth reading, is available at http://www.yale.edu/yale300/collectiblesandpublications/specialdocuments/tercentenial.htm



Peter Salovey is dean of Yale College. Judith Krauss is master of Silliman College and chairwoman of the Council of Masters.

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