Two Yale professional school deans spoke freely about the First Amendment and freedom of speech at the School of Management Monday afternoon.
Yale Law School Dean Robert Post LAW ’77 and SOM Dean Edward Snyder discussed how organizations, including private universities, regulate speech without infringing on First Amendment rights. The discussion was part of a “Convening Yale” speaker series at SOM featuring Yale’s leading researchers.
Post, who is an expert on constitutional law, addressed a full classroom of 60 SOM students. He emphasized that the First Amendment has a political focus which does not include a non-political environments like schools or companies. Post also shared his thoughts on the Citizens United U.S. Supreme Court case, Edward Snowden and the controversial letter that the University of Chicago sent to incoming freshmen defending free speech on campus.
“Yale cannot violate the First Amendment in any way because we are a private organization,” Post said.
Post said he disagreed with the conventional view that free speech creates a marketplace of ideas in which the truth can be pursued and instead argued that only people who specialize in a field can pursue truth in that subject. The discipline needed for such specialization, he added, requires a regulation of knowledge and speech.
The purpose of the First Amendment, in Post’s view, rests on the notion that everyone has the right to his or her own political opinions. However, Post said that a total freedom of speech is impossible and undesirable in other realms of life beyond politics. An organization’s leader cannot sacrifice the organization’s larger purpose for its employees’ unrestrained freedom of speech, he said.
Applying this argument to organizations like Yale, Post said Yale and most universities should regulate speech in a way that facilitates the education of its students.
“The kind of freedom that is required to serve the purpose of critical education is not freedom of speech, which implies a political foundation, but instead academic freedom,” Post said, adding that academic freedom requires the regulation of speech. For instance, Post said that a college course needs to accomplish some end, and the professor must guide the discussion to reach that end.
After the talk, Post said in an interview that the classroom is only one of the many domains within a university and that speech regulation in a classroom setting cannot be applied to other settings like residential colleges. Referring to last year’s Halloween controversy in Silliman College, Post said residential colleges require more protection, given that they are living spaces.
Post also commented on the University of Chicago letter, which denounced trigger warnings and intellectual safe spaces.
“This letter is very much premised on the freedom that someone would have as a political actor,” Post said. “That’s not the way we teach classes, not the way we judge the speech of professors when we tenure them or don’t tenure them, not the way any sane person would conduct education. We care very much that our students feel included… it’s also a matter of encouraging the students to speak their mind.”
Yet freedom of speech is not always guaranteed in the political realm, as Post acknowledged in discussing the release of classified government information by Edward Snowden. Post said Snowden was contractually obliged to keep information secret in his position at the Central Intelligence Agency. Defenders of Snowden cannot justify his leaks using the First Amendment, Post said.
Post also said that the Citizens United Supreme Court case was wrongly decided because it permits corporations to weigh in on political discourse in a manner that marginalizes individual voices.
“If I don’t think the government is responsive to public opinion, but to those corporations, then my freedom of speech doesn’t mean anything; there is no reason to protect the speech at all,” Post said.
Post also criticized the way universities implement Title IX regulations, which he said are really about equality of the sexes. Post said in an interview that people often misread Title IX as the “anti-rape law,” but in fact it was designed to ensure equal access to education.
Post added that universities put disproportionate resources into punishment rather than enforcing equality.
While the talk was not specifically tailored to SOM students, SOM professor David Bach said it is essential for future managers to understand the First Amendment.
“Part of our interest is to give our students guidance on what kind of environment they should foster later on in the workplace,” Bach said.
Certain parts of the talk raised concerns among audience members. For example, Norma Gibson SOM ’17 said she was worried that the homogeneous academic leadership at most universities stifles diversity.
Gibson added that unlike the sciences, where an idea can be empirically wrong, subjects like history and art tend to allow and welcome more controversy, thriving with more robust freedom of speech.
“If your academics are primarily white men, then what do you get? You get more white men,” Gibson said. “If the academics assessing truth are homogenous in demographics or ideologies, the result is a self-perpetuating cycle of ideas rather than true academic discourse.”
Economics professor and Nobel laureate Robert Shiller spoke previously in the “Convening Yale” series, and former Head of Silliman College Nicholas Christakis is scheduled to speak on Nov. 8.