Zelinsky: Censoring speech at Yale

Last Monday, I wrote in the Yale Daily News critiquing Alderman Mike Jones ’11 and his conception of the Ward 1 aldermanship (“Taking our alderman to task,” April 17). The same day, a series of anonymous posters around campus accused me of “classism” and “racism,” among other charges. As President Obama would say, this is “a teachable moment”: Regardless of their offensive content, the authors of the posters had a right to express their views, however incendiary. While I disagree with these offensive claims, I defend the rights of their authors to criticize me anonymously. My opponents’ claims are protected speech. They do not directly incite violence or harm the physical safety of others. Sadly, in recent months at Yale, we have forgotten this commitment to free speech.

Instead of defending this traditional definition of free expression based on a rich Western history and Yale’s liberal arts commitments, many on campus contend that we should ban speech that creates some form of “hostile environment.” On these grounds, the Christian preacher Christopher Yuan was denied public space in Dwight Hall simply because he does not conform to progressive notions of homosexuality. Similarly, while it may rightfully draw attention to unaddressed cases of sexual assault, the Title IX case attacks DKE for boorish, but ultimately harmless chants that no one could confuse with a serious call to rape. Only yesterday, Jordon Walker ’13 authored a column in the News (“An insulting prank and hypocritical response,” April 21), disappointed that a religiously insensitive prank did not merit disciplinary action.

Banning any speech that purportedly creates a “hostile environment” begs the critical questions: Who decides when an environment has become hostile? The Dean’s Office? The target of such speech (like me)? The federal government? No matter who decides, the result will be the same: Personal ideologies color the decisions. This is the antithesis of a commitment to free speech.

Had anonymous posters like those aimed at me attacked the Title IX claimants in a similar tone, Dean Miller would have condemned the posters and formed an investigatory committee. When the same happens to a conservative, white male we expect no such response — nor should we, for either group.

Yale would not be alone in upholding our tradition of free speech against its modern enemies. Recently, the Supreme Court overwhelmingly ruled in favor of the Westboro Baptist church and its right to proclaim its truly reprehensible views. Our society protects such speech, however incorrigible, because we have the right to offend. Yale has a unique obligation to protect all forms of dialogue — regardless of content — because of a university’s role as a marketplace and incubator of ideas. If we clamped down on all controversial thought, we would have trouble producing the next Paul Krugmans ’74 and Bill Buckleys ’50.

The banning of offensive (as opposed to truly dangerous) speech discourages the most effective method of combating such expression: more speech. Refutation and counterprotest should be the mantra of the day. Indeed, Yale’s LBGTQ community deserves credit for successfully adopting this approach when Yuan spoke at the African-American Cultural Center in early April. Mr. Yuan was outclassed and outmaneuvered by his audience’s arguments. Banning him and other hateful people only makes them martyrs for their cause. Engaging such persons exposes them as the intellectual frauds they are.

In this spirit, I wholeheartedly support those who posted these attacks against me. I challenge them to identify themselves and engage me in a serious debate over the issues I raised on Monday. But I acknowledge that those who speak anonymously follow in the footsteps of men like James Madison, who signed Federalist 10 with a pseudonym.

Yale must reclaim the mantle of free speech in order to preserve this unique community — in the words of George Pierson, “a tradition, a company of scholars, a society of friends.” The day we abandon free expression, we cease to stand for our core values.

Nathaniel Zelinsky is a sophomore in Davenport College.

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