Free speech examined

According to a recent national report, Yale’s student body enjoys a relatively high level of free speech — though the issue is complicated by vague wording in University policies.

In its annual report this month, the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education (FIRE), an organization dedicated to defending freedom of speech on college campuses, suggested that the University generally encourages free speech but nevertheless maintains some policies that could be used to infringe upon students’ freedom of expression. However, the University compares favorably with many of its peers, as Harvard and Columbia — along with 59 percent of the 427 surveyed campuses — were found to have policies that seem to substantially violate freedom of speech on campus.

“While we think Yale could do better, and we would love to work with students to work for greater free speech rights on campus, they are ahead of the curve already,” said FIRE Director of Policy Research Samantha Harris.

The FIRE report comes at the heels of recent controversy surrounding the administration’s blocking of Yale Bluebook+, a student-generated course catalogue that used University material to rank courses by numerical ratings and was shut down due to administrators’ concerns about improper usage of licensed material. Harris said FIRE has been closely following the developments around the issue.

University spokesman Tom Conroy, in a statement to the News, rebuffed the report’s suggestion that the University places any impositions on free speech or expression, saying that he “would disagree with any critique of Yale that claimed the University had anything but the fullest protection of free speech.”

University Vice President and General Counsel Dorothy Robinson echoed a similar sentiment, describing Yale’s respect for free expression as “deep-seated and robust.”

The methodology of the FIRE report is based on publicly available written policy, Harris said. In the case of Yale, the organization relied heavily upon information contained in the Yale Undergraduate Regulations. After reviewing its regulations, FIRE gave Yale a “yellow light” ranking out of a possible red, yellow or green.

Harris said the “yellow light” rating results from several University regulations that either constitute a restriction of free speech or could be applied to restrict speech by way of their vagueness.

Specifically, Harris pointed to the general conduct and discipline portion of the Yale College Undergraduate Regulations, which states that the Executive Committee may take action against a student for an action that “may imperil the integrity and values of the Yale community or the well-being of its members.”

“That’s very broad,” Harris said. “It doesn’t necessarily apply to speech, but it could.”

Harris said that Yale’s policy on students’ appropriate use of technology resources also could be better designed to ensure freedom of expression. In particular, Harris said that under the current policy, content of a sexual nature used for research could be deemed a violation of policy by the University.

In a Monday letter to the Yale community, Yale College Dean Mary Miller rejected claims that the shutdown of the Yale Bluebook+ site was an infringement of free speech. The shutdown of the site, she said, happened because the site’s developers — brothers Peter Xu ’14 and Harry Yu ’14 — violated Yale’s Appropriate Use Policy and encouraged students to select courses based on incomplete information.

“To claim that Yale’s efforts to ensure that students received complete information somehow violated freedom of expression turns that principle on its head,” Miller said.

Of 15 students interviewed, though, seven students said they considered the shutdown an infringement upon freedom of expression at the University. Four said it was not an infringement and four had no opinion.

“It was a violation,” Harrison Miller ’16 said, disagreeing with Miller. “Yale administrators didn’t explicitly limit the use of course rating comparisons, and in that respect, were not more explicit about policies of freedom of speech.”

According to the Undergraduate Regulations, the University’s current policy on freedom of expression emerged from a report by the Committee on Freedom of Expression at Yale published in January 1975.

Most students interviewed said they were generally pleased with the state of freedom of expression at Yale, saying that they found no reason to doubt the University’s commitment to freedom of speech.

“I don’t see any ways [administrators] hinder our freedom of speech,” Mary Farmer ’16 said. “There are always ways in which we could have more freedom, but I don’t personally feel individually large weight taking away my freedom. I can say what I feel.”

Still, some students noted that there might be some instances in which the University’s policies are, as Leanne Motylenski ’16 noted, “blurry.”

In last year’s FIRE report, Yale received the same “yellow light” rating for its level of tolerance for free speech.

Larry Milstein contributed reporting.

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