In classrooms and offices across campus, faculty have watched as students and administrators debate racial tensions on campus, freedom of expression and where the two intersect, if at all. While most have been less vocal than their students about the issues at hand, professors interviewed said the faculty is deeply divided about whether recent controversies threaten free speech on campus.
Many students, administrators and commentators across the country have argued that ongoing demonstrations and conversations on campus revolve around Yale’s long history of racial discrimination and should not be framed as attempts to censor dissenting viewpoints. But others see the campus outcry — which was partially triggered by an email from Silliman College Associate Master Erika Christakis that defended students’ rights to be offensive — as an attack on free speech. A recent petition endorsed by the William F. Buckley Jr. Program calling on University President Peter Salovey to defend the freedom of expression garnered more than 700 signatures, including more than 400 from alumni, staff and faculty.
Although top Yale administrators have sent emails reaffirming the University’s commitment to free speech and highlighting the importance of the Woodward Report — a 1974 document outlining the guiding principles of free expression at the University — they have also emphasized that the values of free speech do not conflict with a commitment to creating an inclusive community. But Yale College Dean Jonathan Holloway told the News that many faculty members are still concerned about their freedom to voice controversial ideas at the University.
“I never saw this as a free speech issue, but I do see why people think it is,” he said. “It is understandable that faculty members are really concerned about students, who are angry, telling them rudely that their ideas are stupid. No one wants that.”
Indeed, faculty members interviewed expressed a wide range of perspectives on the validity of the free-speech narrative in the context of recent events — not only Christakis’ email, but also the resulting backlash.
THE EMAIL CONTROVERSY
Many who believe free speech at Yale is in danger have focused heavily on students’ actions in response to Christakis’ Oct. 30 email. But faculty members said the content of the email itself raises interesting questions about freedom of expression: namely, whether her email should have framed the discussion about culturally appropriative Halloween costumes within the narrative of free speech at all.
Christakis sent her email in response to an earlier email from the Intercultural Affairs Committee that asked students to consider whether their Halloween costumes could be offensive. Christakis’ email suggested that it was inappropriate for the administration to restrict students from wearing certain costumes, noting that students should be able to choose what they wear and talk about their choices with each other.
But economics and African American Studies professor Gerald Jaynes said the IAC email never should have triggered a conversation about freedom of speech in the first place. The IAC email merely asked students to be thoughtful about what they wear and did not actually restrict them from wearing anything, he said. Christakis’ email framed the IAC’s request as a free speech issue with the intention of being provocative, he said.
“I do have concerns about a situation where a person is encouraging students to be obnoxious and provocative on purpose to set up confrontations,” Jaynes said. “If a substantial idea is being presented, then of course we should encourage it. But a student walking around with a stupid Halloween costume is not expressing an important idea.”
Philosophy professor Jason Stanley, who co-wrote a Nov. 13 article titled “When Free Speech Becomes a Political Weapon” in The Chronicle of Higher Education, agreed that the original IAC email was about civility and mutual respect, and he questioned why this message was interpreted as one about free expression. The natural hypothesis, he said, is that some are changing the subject in order to avoid more difficult topics, adding that “free speech” has become a code word to tell minority students “to suck it up.”
But all six faculty members interviewed agreed that Christakis had the right to send the email in the first place, regardless of its contents.
“She had every right to send the email,” Holloway said. “It was unusual, and I was not happy with it. I would not have sent the email, but her right to send it needs to be respected.”
THE ENSUING DISCUSSION
Students’ responses to the Christakis email have even further divided the faculty. While some say student reactions — including a heated confrontation with Silliman Master Nicholas Christakis in the Silliman courtyard two weeks ago — have sought to limit freedom of expression, others believe the defense of free speech has only been brought up to minimize students’ worries about discrimination.
Philosophy professor Shelly Kagan said Yale has to be a space where people are able to put forth opinions and hypotheses that may be “deeply, deeply offensive” to other members of the community. He acknowledged that recent racial discussions are not merely free-speech issues, but he said there is certainly a free-speech component to ongoing controversies.
During forums and discussions over the past several weeks, some minority students have said their emotions and experiences are not up for intellectual debate. Kagan said discussing emotionally fraught issues, such as race, is a delicate matter, but he argued that all sides should have the space to talk.
“Is somebody hurt? That is not up for debate; that can’t be challenged,” he said. “The claim doesn’t stop there, however. Minority students go on to say that their pain has been caused by certain kinds of behavior of other members of the community. At this point, that claim can be challenged and discussed.”
Kagan added that minority students do not owe him an explanation of their experiences but said those students cannot expect him to believe their claims if they do not back them up in discussions.
David Leffell ’77, a professor at the Yale School of Medicine who signed the petition in defense of free speech, echoed Kagan’s argument that discussions do not invalidate minority students’ experiences.
“I have no doubt that students at Yale experience racism, and that needs to be addressed aggressively and thoughtfully,” he said. “The problem is that when one stakes out an a priori position, it is not an invitation to open discussion on ways to address the concerns.”
But other professors interviewed said the outcry about the freedom of expression is simply a way to deflect marginalized students’ exercise of free speech — something they have not always been able to do.
Stanley said minority and underrepresented students have not historically enjoyed a freedom of expression equal to that of white students. He pointed to the University’s poor faculty diversity as a broader context in explaining the dynamics of campus discussions about race. The dearth of faculty members of color means that minority students receive less affirmation and that their concerns are taken less seriously, Stanley said. The only way they can be heard is by raising their voices, he added.
“These students are looking for respect, and the response is ‘free speech,’” Stanley said.
Holloway said the increased awareness of minority students’ voices illustrates an interesting reversal in the freedom of expression among different groups in the community. Some people may complain that there has been a “chilling effect” on the free speech culture on campus, he said, but there has always been a chilling effect on free speech — it has simply historically been directed at people from marginalized backgrounds.
“Free speech in a pristine lab is one thing. But the fact is, if you represent the norm of your society and you have lots of family resources behind you, you have more freedom of expression than those who are socially and financially constrained,” Holloway said. “Marginalized people are now exercising their free speech, and it is free speech other people don’t like.”
Kagan acknowledged that it can be difficult for students to exercise decorum when discussing sensitive subjects, which may have led to some of the criticism of student activists. In his own conversations with students these past weeks, he said, his temper flared and he said things he later regretted. Therefore, while Kagan disagreed with the students’ behavior during the Christakis confrontation, he is sympathetic given the emotional stakes of the discussions.
The question of equal access to free speech appears in the Woodward Report as well. C. Vann Woodward, the chairman of the committee that authored the report and a Yale history professor at the time, wrote in the report’s introduction that some felt free speech should await “the establishment of equality or the liberation of the oppressed.”
Still, Steven Benner ’75, one of the authors of the report, told the News he does not agree with this view. He said it is impossible to determine who gets to decide who is “the powerful” and who is “the powerless.”
Despite the many nuanced views expressed by faculty members, some said this is the time for them to listen and learn about their role in campus discussions rather than speak out.
“My perspective right now is one of listening for advice on how to balance the right of free speech against the obligation of anyone, in a leadership position in a democratic society, to be accountable,” history professor John Gaddis said.