Yale College would stand to benefit from the introduction of a new admissions criterion: courage.
Consider the incidents that have colored — in an ugly hue — recent campus life: anonymous vandalistic racist graffiti, anonymous vandalistic homophobic e-mails, anonymous vandalistic snow-made swastikas, anonymous anti-Muslim cartoons, anonymous harassing posts on AutoAdmit, and now, anonymous harassing posts on JuicyCampus.
While a First Amendment lawyer would rightly argue that even the most inane and revolting anonymous speech should be protected, the so-called “speech” in these cases is the philosophical equivalent of puke left on a college walkway in a drunken Saturday-night stupor. Sure, it emerges from the mouth — figuratively in some cases, literally in others — but it is not pretty and no one stays around to clean up the mess.
Don’t get us wrong. It was with raised eyebrows that we greeted Dean Salovey’s suggestion at a recent public forum that perhaps offensive signed speech and offensive anonymous speech should be held to different standards of official tolerability. But he affirmed in follow-up interviews that this notion, if inferred, must have stemmed from an initial “misinterpretation” of the 1975 Woodward Report. “In short,” he wrote in an e-mail, “we do not have speech codes at Yale whether or not the author can be identified.” Reassuringly, Salovey, like President Levin, appreciates the role of speech, whether signed or not, in a community that values confrontation with the uncomfortable.
And truth be told, the News’ own online forums permit anonymous discussion. The reason is that some students and professors would hesitate before thinking the “unthinkable,” discussing the “unmentionable” and challenging the “unchallengable,” as called for by Yale’s free-expression policy, if they could not hide behind a veil of inscrutability. No, not ideal — but better than the alternative. Unfettered discussion on campus public forums far beyond the News’ own is fundamental to free dialogue, and is often intellectually stimulating.
Yet as our community reflects on critical matters of race, religion, self-segregation, sexuality, gender and even speech itself, the intellectually stimulating has hardly come to frame the conversation. In fact, the brand of speech so eloquently protected in the Woodward Report — provocative but not destructive; if not signed, then at least constructive — seems as rare at Yale as the student who still uses his dorm landline.
The faceless few who have driven so much campus dialogue this past year, and continue to do so in forums like JuicyCampus, represent no one but themselves. They certainly do not reflect most Yale students, whether or not admissions officers have been factoring in applicant audacity all this time after all.
Cowards, come forward already. We can’t promise not to bite.