NEWS’ VIEW: Yale-NUS students deserve free speech

The Speakers’ Corner in Hong Lim Park is the only place in Singapore where citizens can protest publicly after registering with the park service.
The Speakers’ Corner in Hong Lim Park is the only place in Singapore where citizens can protest publicly after registering with the park service. Photo by Ava Kofman.

Just over a year before Yale-NUS opens its doors, top University officials remain unable to explain what constraints on political expression its students will face. The Wall Street Journal reported on July 16 that, according to Yale-NUS President Pericles Lewis, students at the new school will not be allowed to form political parties or stage political protests on campus.

Lewis disputes the paraphrase in the Journal, and he and Yale University President Richard Levin criticized recent press accounts for misrepresenting the new college’s policies on political expression in a statement last week. But neither president has offered a clear explanation of the new college’s policies, making it disappointingly clear that freedom is an afterthought to Yale’s venture into Singapore.

Lewis told the News last week that Yale-NUS students will be guaranteed “all forms of political expression consistent with Singaporean Law.” That is no comfort, given the dangerous restrictiveness of Singaporean law. Moreover, Lewis has failed to explain what that policy means. He has promised that the school will release a specific policy, eventually, and in the meantime he dismissed any further questions about student freedoms as hypotheticals.

Levin, meanwhile, pointed out in an interview with the News last week that Yale had carved out guarantees of academic freedom and nondiscrimination at Yale-NUS. But he declined to comment about what sort of restrictions on free speech Yale-NUS students will face. Political freedoms, it seems, were not considered important enough to be conditions for the project.

Political activity is fundamental to life at Yale. When something strikes us as wrong, we stand up against it; we tell the world what we think is right. In the process, we hone our own ideas of what is right. We read philosophy in our classes, but we then orient ourselves outwards, conceiving of ourselves always in the context of New Haven, the United States, the world. We want our ideas to amount to more than a theory cleverly defended in a paper or a debate.

If Yale’s name comes to stand for less than that spirit abroad, we will have lost sight of ourselves at home, too. For the University to become a leader in the globalization of education, it must do so in a way that promotes the kind of education — always free, always probing, sometimes subversive — it has celebrated for three centuries.

Establishing a new college halfway around the world is no simple task. There are clearly issues to worry about other than political freedom. But it is unacceptable for an institution that takes pride in liberal values to avoid the issue of freedom of expression as Yale and Yale-NUS have done in the past week.

The administration should delay no further in developing and publicizing specific policies concerning political freedoms at Yale-NUS. Its inability to give clear answers is only tarnishing the project and embarrassing Yale. And Yale students should remember that, unlike their counterparts in Singapore, they can speak — and protest — freely.

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