Student, master clash over freedom of expression

As students gathered for a Master’s Tea in Ezra Stiles College Wednesday, tensions related to campus political expression arose outside.

Before the tea featuring New Haven mayoral candidate Henry Fernandez LAW ’94 began, Sam Ward-Packard ’14 said Ezra Stiles Master Stephen Pitti prevented him from handing out fliers in support of Fernandez’s opponent, Justin Elicker FES ’10 SOM ’10. But Pitti, who hosted the tea, challenged Ward-Packard’s claim, and said he was only enforcing a policy he has always held regarding campaign literature.

Ward-Packard, a volunteer for Ward 10 Alderman Elicker, said the pamphlet contained information about Elicker, former city economic development administrator Fernandez, and State Sen. Toni Harp ARC ’78. He said he started handing them out by the master’s house, where the tea was hosted, when Pitti approached him and told him he could not hand out fliers there.

Ward-Packard and Pitti offered different versions of the ensuing events: Pitti said in an email to the News that he invited Ward-Packard to continue handing out campaign literature either inside the master’s house or on the street side entrance of the house, as long as he was not inside the college courtyard. Pitti also said he invited Ward-Packard to attend the tea and engage with Fernandez.

“I told the student that he could distribute his pamphlets at the front door of the house — on the street side — but not inside the college courtyard itself, which has always been our policy regarding any campaign literature; or he could come inside our house and pass them out inside our living room at the tea, which seemed fair in this case,” Pitti said in his email to the News. “I made clear that if any Fernandez supporters asked about distributing pamphlets I would ask them to follow the same rules.”

Yet Ward-Packard told the News that Pitti asked him to leave the college grounds, and that the only alternative Pitti gave him was to stand at the street entrance of the master’s house, but that most students were entering the Master’s Tea from the other entrance, which was inside the college.

“He definitely did not tell me I could distribute pamphlets inside the house. That’s absurd,” Ward-Packard said. “He told me I had to leave the college grounds and he did not invite me to come in and ask questions and participate. It was much more hostile than his account makes it sound, and he went very quickly to threatening me with disciplinary action.”

The Yale College undergraduate regulations for 2013-’14 state that the University protects freedom of expression on Yale’s campus, including “picketing and the distribution of leaflets.” Actions are permittable “subject to approval as to schedule and location by the appropriate University official, until or unless they disrupt regular or essential operations of the University or significantly infringe upon the rights of others,” according to the regulations.

University spokesman Tom Conroy did not respond to requests for comment on how the Yale College undergraduate regulations would apply in this particular circumstance or on Pitti’s hosting of a Master’s Tea featuring Fernandez.

Pitti’s wife and Ezra Stiles Associate Master Alicia Camacho serves as co-chair of JUNTA, a New Haven organization aimed at empowering Latino and low-income communities. Fernandez sits alongside Camacho — a professor of American studies and ethnicity, race and migration — as a board member of JUNTA. Pitti also hosted a Master’s Tea featuring Fernandez, who is a fellow of Ezra Stiles college, this past April.

Following Wednesday’s Master’s Tea, Brian Brooks ’17 said in the Stiles dining hall that he observed the incident that occurred between Ward-Packard and Pitti. Brooks said Pitti asked Ward-Packard to stand outside and Ward-Packard replied that this abridged his freedom of speech. Brooks said he could tell the student was angry but “it wasn’t a big scene.”

Yale for Elicker leader Drew Morrison ’14 said that this was an independent expenditure and activity by Ward-Packard and thus has no affiliation with the Elicker campaign whatsoever, though he added that he believes the “masters of all colleges should allow campaigning because that contributes to a vibrant democracy in our city.”

When asked about the event, Fernandez said that he had not heard of the incident and had no involvement.

“I certainly don’t know what occurred, but I always feel like it’s the right of students or anyone to participate actively in democracy, and if they want to hand out fliers, that’s certainly their right, but I really have no idea what occurred,” Fernandez said. “I enjoyed the Master’s Tea and I enjoyed talking about the future of the city.”

Pitti also said that he made it clear at the Master’s Tea that students should educate themselves about New Haven politics and make their own decision about which candidate to support. Pitti said that he did not tell students for whom they should vote or about how Pitti himself would vote.

Ward-Packard, however, argues that Pitti’s actions were unacceptable.

“This isn’t about the campaign at all: It’s about a master doing something that is totally inappropriate for a master to do,” Ward-Packard said. “I think that the master of a Yale residential college should be delighted that students are interested in engaging in discourse about local elections when they’re trying to get students involved in local elections, and handing out pamphlets is one of the oldest and most polite forms of political activism imaginable.”

In addition to Fernandez, Elicker and Harp, Hillhouse High School Principal Kermit Carolina is also running to replace Mayor John DeStefano Jr.

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