This semester’s Human Rights Week, presented by the Yale chapter of Amnesty International, aims to generate dialogue on campus and encourage action on issues relating to freedom of expression.
This week’s events — which kicked off with an opportunity for students to write articles of the United Nations Declaration of Human Rights in chalk at various campus locations — intend to bring awareness to the persecution of freedom of speech advocates and to open discussion on hate speech, Amnesty members said.
Event organizers said the week is relevant to the Yale community because many students are naturally vocal but often unaware that the way they express opinions can offend others. But some students said the larger problem is that most students unnecessarily restrain their voices out of fear that expressing themselves will offend others, thereby hindering discussion of important issues.
Yale Amnesty International Co-coordinator Ted Everhart ’09 said defining hate speech has become a particularly important topic at Yale in the wake of what was criticized as racism in the Yale Record, the recent posting of what were interpreted as anti-gay messages on Coming Out Day and the appearance of apparently anti-Muslim flyers on campus two weeks ago. Amnesty hopes to bring more attention to the difficulty of defining what kinds of expression are appropriate, Everhart said.
“There seems to be no end to hate speech on campus,” he said. “It marks a sad point in our career at Yale to hear all of this hateful speech going on, so we hope to address this issue.”
Everhart said the group decided to spotlight freedom of expression as an offshoot of the international organization’s goal of freeing “prisoners of conscience” — people imprisoned for the expression of their beliefs — in the wake of continuing international interest and recent concern in the Yale community about free speech issues.
“We’ve been making a specific effort to make the week relevant to what’s happening on campus,” he said.
The events this week will include a discussion with Evan Baehr, former foreign policy legislative aide to Congressman Frank Wolf, several documentary film screenings and a reading of excerpts from traditionally banned books, speeches and articles.
Amnesty Co-coordinator Tinbet Tecle ’07 said the group will also ask students to comment on contentious issues regarding the freedom of expression, including controversies relating to hate speech, by writing on a billboard that will be set up in Beinecke Plaza throughout this week.
Amnesty Secretary Jen James ’08 said the group is collaborating with the Yale chapter of the American Civil Liberties Union and Students Taking Action Now: Darfur on several of the week’s activities. But she said Amnesty is working with fewer groups than they did last semester, when Human Rights Week focused on increasing awareness of children’s rights.
STAND Co-coordinator Betny Townsend ’08 said she hopes students will use this opportunity to reflect on the threats to freedom of expression around the world as well as in the Yale community. Townsend said she thinks students who are aware and concerned about human rights issues often fail to take action on them because students do not think that their efforts will make an impact on distant places and people.
“It feels very discouraging to a lot of people when you can’t make an immediate impact tomorrow,” she said.
Some students said while they appreciate Amnesty’s push to draw focus to freedom of expression, they think the group could do a better job of publicizing the week’s events so that the issues get the attention they deserve.
Jonathan Amatruda ’09 said he was not aware of the week and hopes that Amnesty will increase efforts to get more students involved in discussing the topics to be spotlighted. Amatruda said he hopes Amnesty’s focus on the limitations of free speech will address the way some students tend to silence themselves because they are afraid of being seen as prejudiced.
“Out of fear of offending people, we get into this unnecessarily restrained position,” he said. “Issues that aren’t confronted enough should be discussed openly and honestly.”
But Kevin Alexander ’07 said he does not believe the average Yalie censors himself to a greater degree than most people. While he said he thinks disrespectful speech is rarely unintentional and never justifiable, he believes some good can come out of such expressions.
“Discussion is motivated by a feeling of being wronged because something was seen as offensive,” he said.
Participants in the Human Rights Week will also help solicit support to release imprisoned Vietnamese dissidents and help construct and learn from a photo exhibit of persecuted journalists in Beinecke Plaza.
Amnesty is currently working with STAND and individuals from other groups to organize a benefit concert for Darfur set to take place next semester.