Free-speech policy contains surprising flaws

The administration of Yale University advises its students to read the Woodward Report, the official Yale policy on freedom of expression. One of the first things I did while taking this semester off was take that advice. The report, published in 1975, needs an overhaul. The argument is so glaringly bad that anyone in freshman English could pick it apart without effort.

I’m not advocating a new policy or implying that freedom of expression is bad. I’m simply pointing out the specific flaws of the current policy’s rationale without necessarily recommending a change to that policy.

The first sign that the report isn’t worth the paper it’s written on is that it opens with (and takes its inspiration from) a quote from Milton’s “Areopagitica,” one of the foundational documents in shaping modern notions of free expression. The point Milton makes over and over is that free speech should be extended to everyone except Catholics because their ideas are harmful to society. The position Catholics held, in Milton’s eyes, is analogous to any group that is considered to have ideologies toxic to society today (Islam, Islamophobia, religion, atheism, homosexuality, homophobia, liberalism, neoconservatism, whatever fits your taste). Free expression is a right guaranteed to any view regardless of its contents, but Milton, one of the modern founders of free expression, would disqualify a particular view if it was distasteful enough. I don’t mean to criticize Milton, but rather the authors of the Woodward Report who used Milton as evidence and inspiration (they either didn’t read “Areopagitica” or didn’t understand what they were reading). It is not a damning point in and of itself, but it is an error typical of the report.

One fatal error (there are many) the report makes is to model itself after the First Amendment: “We take a chance, as the First Amendment takes a chance, when we commit ourselves to the idea that the results of free expression are to the general benefit in the long run, however unpleasant they may appear at the time. The validity of such a belief cannot be demonstrated conclusively.”

Stanley Fish GRD ’62 makes the point that a university and the government aren’t the same thing; it’s wrong to assume that what’s good for one is good for the other. It’s obvious, but the Woodward Report misses it.

In framing the Constitution and the Bill of Rights, the framers understood that the country would be so diverse as to render it impossible to have consensus over what John Rawls calls “comprehensive doctrines.” Rather than wading into a culture war, the government (theoretically) tries to ensure a fair process without regard for its output. It does not matter what the marketplace of ideas determines, as long as everyone has the right to participate freely in it. Free expression isn’t a goal — it’s what allows each person to pursue his goal. In a plural society the government shouldn’t play favorites; instead, it should only provide a fair playing field for all people to peruse their unique dreams. This is what Americans mean by “freedom.” This is how Fish (accurately) sketches what liberalism is at face value.

The important difference between Yale and the American government is that while the American government’s purpose is to allow its citizens the opportunity to pursue their own goals, Yale’s purpose is to itself pursue its own goal: “to discover and disseminate knowledge by means of research and teaching.” For the purposes of government, the reason freedom is considered to be “to the general benefit” is that “the general benefit” is defined as freedom. But the purposes of the government are not the purposes of Yale. Free expression is simply one thing (among many) that is useful in achieving the University’s stated purpose.

The mistake the Woodward Report makes is that in some places knowledge is the preeminent value, while in others it’s freedom of expression. It is not difficult to think of cases where free expression has nothing to do with research or teaching. The sweet, sweet music of the Society of Orpheus and Bacchus is a harmless example. Invoking (hiding behind) what is supposed to exist in service of the discovery of knowledge when individuals or publications produce offensive statements is a more troubling possibility.

I’m not criticizing free expression or the pursuit of knowledge; both will always be fundamental aspects of Yale’s culture. But the policy granting free speech should not use as its justification an obviously flawed argument. Yale has long been proud of the Woodward Report even though it is vague, incoherent and poorly written. The worst part, though, is that the Woodward Report is 47 pages long, and what I’ve listed are just some of the problems in the first five paragraphs.

Michael Wayne Harris is a junior in Branford College.

Comments