Toward solving the speech crisis at Yale

Free speech at Yale is in peril.

Take this past week alone.

Desperately clinging to a puny and mindless vocabulary, a miseducated vandal wrote “Nigger School” on a wall outside Pierson College. Yesterday, an e-mail from Yale College Dean Peter Salovey reported homophobia. Blackface.

Or recall last year.

N.O.G.A.Y.S. posters. “Yellow Fever.” Alleged racism in Yale Herald cartoons.

Or take Columbia with their rampant nooses and swastikas.

Sure, these are examples of individuals speaking freely — and short of vandalism, their legal right to make hurtful statements or gestures should remain — but is this truly “the” freedom of speech for which the Founders sacrificed to protect?

Not at all. And yet this inane dictionary gun-play has dominated discussion on campus for the past year, if not longer.

That’s disappointing.

But what is also sad is that it seems now any speech at Yale even remotely controversial is greeted with a chorus of naysayers. They argue certain opinions are wrong — no question about it — and decline to engage in real debate. Or they insist that certain views, particularly offensive ones, simply should not be published in the first place.

This is not just disappointing but contrary to the spirit of freedom and dialogue with which this country and University were founded.

What happened to the days when ideas flowed freely here — minds relatively open — and contributed to an atmosphere of fruitful, and not futile, debate?

Nothing. But the recent misuses of speech at Yale and beyond — and on the opposite side of the same coin, its misguided reception — have distracted us from the value of examining all issues, from all sides. And agreeing to tolerance.

The News itself has been condemned for tolerating too liberally — and publishing too much.

But our view is just the opposite.

The truth is that this page is quantitatively insufficient. Three thousand words each day is not enough to contain all the voices of a community of tens of thousands.

We know we can’t remedy the free speech problem on campus, and we don’t deign to believe we can come close. But one modest solution we do offer is today’s two-page spread: an expanded weekly Opinion & Editorial section, Friday Forum.

We intend to make room for our readers’ many voices — long overdue for a listen.

Like a bucket slowly filling with water dripping from a leaky roof, this section does not serve its purpose letting one column or letter pour out to make room for another; the floor, then, gets all wet.

So now there is another bucket — a no-holds-barred call for more speech.

Let the debate begin.


  • Anonymous

    It doesn't necessairly help that every time something happens, we bring up every other thing that has happened. This isn't a criticism of the YDN per se, I just think that it's easier to deal with one incident at a time rather than trying to deal with every incident each time. But really, if we didn't give those who violate community standards the payoff of lots of attention, it might better serve everyone. It discourages people from doing offensive acts and it preserves a lot of emotional pain on our parts if we just simply refuse to discuss it because it's not worth our time.

  • Anonymous

    "[I]s this truly 'the' freedom of speech for which the Founders sacrificed to protect?" I certainly hope not. THAT freedom of speech focuses on the individual's right to speak free of government restriction. The "freedom of speech" of great universities is supposed to be much greater. Restrictions on expression of views, particularly offensive ones (as opposed to restrictions on physical vandalism) and especially restrictions in the form of "civility codes" and the like imposed by a university, are fundamentally inconsistent with academic freedom and the reasons for having universities at all. Let's hope that recent incidents don't prompt Yale to impose such restrictions. which are essentially suicide notes written in a university's own hand.

    No sensible person has ever argued that freedom of speech of either the political or academic variety always or even often produces immediately pleasing results. Instead, the winning and still correct argument is the old - but, weirdly, often neglected one - that all other approaches are so much worse. It's odd that one has to say it at all.

  • Anonymous

    The only thing academic freedom requires is freedom of expression within an academic setting. The majority of activities at Yale have nothing to do with academics, so appealing to academic freedom is a non starter. Or, to put another way, freedom of expression is critical for the business of exchanging ideas, but we should only have freedom of expression when we do go about that business. When we go about activities other than the academic exchange of ideas, you can't justify freedom of speech on academic freedom grounds.

    I'm not saying we shouldn't have free speech, I'm just saying the freedom of expression that follows from academic freedom is confined to the seminar room, the research project, the essay, the lecture hall, or other purely academic matters. Freedom of speech in nonacademic matters can't have academic freedom as a justification. To use that justification is, ironically, to miss the point of education as a special activity set apart from all other activities. The justifications for special cases can't be used for general cases, as the commenter who opposed "civility codes" would have us believe.

  • Anonymous

    It only misses the point if we take education in its narrow sense as "academic education". I don't think that's the case, given all the propaganda Yale throws our way about how much students are supposed to learn from each other, outside of the classroom. In my opinion, one of the most important things that college should teach us is that the people we associate with may hold ideas that we find not only incorrect, but offensive and morally repugnant. We should argue with these people when possible, and ignore or socially stigmatize them when necessary, but we overestimate these people and we underestimate ourselves when we decide to have a caretaker administration step in for us to forcibly regulate nonviolent speech (inciting violence, obviously, is another matter). Learning how to deal with offensive, morally repugnant ideas and attitudes is a vital part of our education, in that it prepares us to enter a world largely lacking in civility codes, or civility.

  • Anonymous

    I response, the term that we should or should not take in the narrow sense is not "education," but "academic freedom." Granted, much of our education is not academic, but then again academic freedom only stakes a claim on those parts of education where education and academia overlap. The idea of academic freedom does not apply to eduction in the broad sense, but only in the narrow, academic sense. That's why it's called "academic freedom" and not "educational freedom." Non-academic education is both absolutely essential and entirely unrelated to academic education except geographically (they both take place, for example, on the same city block, such as with WLH and Calhoun College) and lexically (they both use similar-looking words). In the third post, I wasn't making a claim about education, I was making a claim about academia (the two are independent of and overlapping over one another).

    Academic freedom is not the freedom to say whatever one wishes, but the freedom to study whatever object or phenomenon or idea one wishes. In fact, there is almost no freedom in what one can say in academics. What you are allowed to say is restrained by whatever methods of analysis and paradigms are currently accepted by academia (you can't make up your own scientific method or accept as valid alchemy, for example) and it has to be relevant (in professional academia, no one is going to listen to you if you're trying to discover an already accepted fact or if what you're doing is unrelated to what anyone else is doing). Academic freedom is the freedom to analyze anything, not the freedom to express anything (you can only say things that are supported by rigorous analysis, really).

    This is why academic freedom can't be used to justify free speech outside the seminar room. (It actually can't really be used to justify free speech inside the seminar room, either, but that's a separate issue.) It's not hard: ACADEMIC FREEDOM ONLY APPLIES TO ACADEMICS. Those aspects of education which you (accurately) claim are outside of the classroom can't draw on academic justifications because, by definition, they aren't academic.

    The justifications you give for having free speech (learning to deal with others, learning to naviage the world, learning to balance social needs with individual freedoms) are arguably good justifications, but they aren't academic justifications. I would also argue that those justifications have nothing to do with a university's purpose: to create knowledge and teach analytic skills. Universities aren't here to teach people how to get along or how to be happy or how to be good citizens. And with that in mind, civility codes aren't fundamentally against a university's purpose (they are against a liberal democracy's purpose, which is why public universities can't enforce speech codes, while private ones can). Civility codes and a university's purpose aren't at odds with each other at all. This isn't to say that civility codes are desirable, that is another issue. But to say that we shouldn't have civility codes because it interferes with academic freedom is sloppy argument and complete disregard for what academic freedom is, emptying it of its meaning and then using it as a high-sounding rhetorical phrase.

    There are great reasons for objecting to civility codes: we don't want it, we don't like it, if you do it we won't come to your university, it gets in the way of truly interacting with others, it's a pain in the ass, etc. But civility codes do not impair the academic activities at all, because academic freedom is freedom of topic, and the rules and procedures of scholarship already sufficiently restrict what can and cannot be said.

  • Anonymous

    I think that this editorial entirely misses the point that students protesting racism on campus have been articulating. Firstly, implied in the n-word is a threat, one that is potentially a physical one towards individuals, but also one that is more broadly directed at an entire community, and at those people's right to be at Yale. Further, framing this issue as one of free speech and as a debate that needs to be more open is absurd. Is there really still a debate as to whether it is appropriate to spray paint the n-word on the wall of Pierson? This is not an academic exercise. This is about people's lives and the ways that we are or are not accepted as full members of the Yale community.

  • Anonymous

    I'm sorry, my wording should have been more precise. You're right that academic freedom doesn't and can't justify freedom of speech outside of academic discourse. I wasn't trying to attack your critique of the previous poster's use of "academic freedom", but instead trying to argue that his larger point, namely that freedom of speech should be much wider in universities than it is elsewhere, can be reasonably supported without reference to academic freedom. My primary point was that while civility codes aren't inconsistent with academic freedom, they are inconsistent with one of the main reasons we have universities in the first place: to teach youngsters and prepare them for the world. So I agree that civility codes don't conflict with academic freedom, but I think they do conflict with one of the main purposes of a university.

  • Anonymous

    The first comment above asserts:

    [It doesn't necessairly help that every time something happens, we bring up every other thing that has happened. This isn't a criticism of the YDN per se, I just think that it's easier to deal with one incident at a time rather than trying to deal with every incident each time.]

    Really? Because it seems that viewing each incident in isolation is the true problem. Institutional memory is one of the largest limitations to social consciousness on campus. Yalies come and leave New Haven in four-year cycles, and exiting seniors take with them both bright and not-so-gleaming memories from their college years.

    As a result, a common reaction to race-based tension on campus is shock. We ask ourselves how something "like this" could ever happen in our idyllic academic utopia. The problem is that "things like this" have happened before and that their repeated occurrence should be telling.

    Thus, I don't think that we should shy away from remembering campus history when we talk about race-related conflicts on campus. While we should strive to recognize the nuances between separate events, I believe that it's all-the-more damaging to isolate each incident.

  • Anonymous

    OOPS! My comment contains a nasty typo. Here's the corrected version. Sorry.

    If "academic freedom" and "freedom of speech" within a university are restricted to somebody's notion of "academic discourse" or to activities that are academic or educational, then I say to hell with academic freedom, freedom of speech and universities, especially private ones. None of them would serve anyparticular good, or contribute any particular benefit, to society that is not already served and provided elsewhere at less expense and with more glitz. The political brand of freedom of speech may permit the prohibition of "fighting words," for example, but if universities prohibit expressions others in the university community find inflamatory outside of classroom discourse or whatever else "academic activities" are supposed to include, then no one should care much about universities or university communities. The scientific research can be handled by corporation R&D shops and government departments, and the rest becomes so much regulated junk food for the mind. In that case, put regulation of universities and children's cartoon shows under the same regulatory agency and forget about them both.