WEEKEND | 4:01 pm | October 30, 2012 | By Hannah Schwarz

Free speech at Yale scrutinized in Times op-ed

Yale-NUS
Yale-NUS Photo by Yale-NUS College.

By most accounts, Yale is considered an extremely socially accepting environment. But in a New York Times op-ed published last week, writer Greg Lukianoff calls out Yale for not being not quite so tolerant.

The piece, “Feigning Free Speech on Campus,” calls out multiple schools (Harvard included) for stifling free speech in institutions meant to be “bastions of unbridled inquiry and expression.”

Yale’s free speech problem? A 2009 Yale-Harvard Game shirt that read “I think of all Harvard men as sissies,” a quote from F. Scott Fitzgerald’s “This Side of Paradise.” Dean Mary Miller banned the shirt on the grounds that “sissy” represented a homophobic slur.

Reactions from students and the general public varied — some thought banning the shirt was an overly sensitive reaction to a word with no homophobic intentions, while others thought Miller was completely within her bounds in order to ensure an accepting campus environment.

Whereas free speech laws tend to be mostly black and white (the Westboro Baptist Church ruling was 8-1, after all), schools are a different story. An iffier story, a very grey story. Although Tinker v. Des Moines established that students do not “shed their constitutional rights to freedom of speech or expression at the schoolhouse gate,” schools are also supposed to foster tolerant environments.

And to many students, using a word like “sissy,” with its homophobic connotations, isn’t remotely tolerant.

“With a loaded message like ‘Harvard is full of sissies,’ word choice matters. ‘Sissies’ wasn’t particularly offensive in Fitzgerald’s day; it’s pretty offensive now,” said Clare Kane ’14.

“How is the derisive use of ‘sissy’ not a slur?” added Isaac Park ‘13, head of Yale’s ACLU chapter and a copy editor for the News. “[It] disparages men for not conforming to gender roles.”

This nuanced difference in the interpretation of “sissies” is what makes the debate even more interesting; even when students don’t view it as a homophobic slur, it does bring up issues of heteronormativity, one of Yale’s favorite discussion topics.

Yet, to Nate Zelinsky ’13, a columnist for the News who has written multiple op-eds blasting the administration for restricting free speech, it doesn’t matter if “sissy” is a homophobic or heteronormative slur. In short, it doesn’t matter if it’s offensive.

“The problem with banning slurs or offensive speech is that any standard is inherently subjective. Who decides what counts as offensive? You? Me? Mary Miller? Dean Gentry?” he said.

The debate over free speech on Yale’s campus isn’t only shirt-related. In fact, the Advisory Committee on Campus Climate advocated in its November 2011 report banning Sex Week, writing that “in recent years, [Sex Week] has prominently featured titillating displays, ‘adult’ film stars, and commercial sponsors of such material.”

And deciding whether certain speech should be allowed based on content is exactly what worries Amalia Horan Skilton ’13, co-founder of Fierce Advocates at Yale and board member of the LGBTQ Student Cooperative. She “would rather have the same standards apply at universities” as exist everywhere else, especially because, as of now, Yale can ban verbal protests against speakers.

Although she considers it a “double standard,” she’s quick to add that this prohibition has encouraged more creative, and potentially more effective, protests.

Skilton cited a talk given by Anthony Eselon — who had published homophobic statements in the past — during last spring’s Sex Week. In the middle of Eselon’s talk, roughly 50 students began kissing one another as part of a staged “kiss-in” protest.

Sometimes though, counter-protest and even discussion aren’t tolerated. This will be the situation at Yale-NUS, whose establishment brings the free speech debate to whole new level.

“Is Yale ‘spreading light’ by bringing academic freedom to place that has historically stifled it, or is Yale embarrassingly lending its name to something fundamentally repressive?” said Kane, implying the latter.

It is interesting that while a shirt-related vocal outcry takes place at Yale, students at a Yale campus thousands of miles away will have to be very careful about what they say.

Hopefully, this year, there is no administrative ban on The Game shirts. Only time will tell.

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