Kissing In, Tuning Out: Free Speech at Yale

Gagged.

At around noon this past Monday, a freshman posted a thread on the “Yale College Class of 2015” Facebook group advertising an event. Although the group was initially created to instigate interaction between eager prefrosh, it has since become a bulletin board for the various events held on campus every day. More often than not, these posts are ignored, quickly pushed to the bottom of the page. But this time was different. This student’s post was in support of a talk called “The Person as a Gift,” a segment of True Love Week and the event that inspired this Tuesday’s “kiss-in.” Far from being ignored, the original poster, who was ostensibly unaware of Providence College Literature professor Anthony Esolen’s more controversial writings, was immediately met with a slew of replies condemning Esolen’s views.

“This person thinks I am (and that my community is) sexually deviant, threatening to society, and mentally disturbed,” wrote one commenter. “But I should engage in a dialogue with him? That’s a lot to ask of a person.”

Another student objected to the harsh criticism of Esolen, saying, “I don’t see any explicit ‘hatred’ of anyone in this piece, except for Professor Esolen. The issue isn’t cut and dry. And a little dialogue never hurt anyone.”

To this, someone asked, “in terms of whether or not gay people are sexually dangerous to children — what about that ‘isn’t cut and dry’?”

An extensive debate continued to play out via Facebook until midnight. By the end, the post had amassed 42 comments, addressing issues such as civilized dialogue versus outright obscenity, religion’s place in academic discourse and Sex Week’s mixing of serious discussion with farcical performances like “Hedwig and the Angry Inch.”

Much of the conversation centered on whether Esolen should have been invited to speak at all.

In the past, Yale has welcomed a host of controversial speakers to engage Yale students both on and off campus — people ranging from the porn stars that spoke at last year’s Sex Week to Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad in 2010. The school prides itself on its freedom of speech mandate, but when it comes to language that is potentially hateful, where do we draw the line?


Since the release of the Woodward Report in 1975, Yale has maintained a firm stance in favor of freedom of expression. University President Richard Levin said that no speaker has ever been denied the chance to speak at the school during his tenure.

“We don’t [decide who is allowed to speak on campus],” Levin said. “People, groups and classes make invitations and we don’t try to control that.”

Levin further iterated that the Marshall Committee’s investigation into Sex Week had not been undertaken to stifle students’ freedom of speech. Rather, they had been interested in removing the more commercial and exploitative aspects of past Sex Week events, he said.

Undergraduates for a Better Yale College, a group originally formed to silence Sex Week, now offers Yale students True Love Week, a series of events they bill as an alternative to the week’s more scandalous moments.

“Even with ideas that some people find contemptible, the appropriate response is not to silence the speaker, but to rebut the speaker,” added Levin.

Some of the masters that were interviewed agreed, affirming that they had no qualms with inviting contentious public figures to their Master’s Teas, provided that their presence did not pose a threat to students’ safety.

“Yale is an open place — if you cannot discuss matters openly within a university, then where can you?” Jonathan Edwards Master Penelope Laurans said.


Members of Undergraduates for a Better Yale College don’t necessarily buy the idea that Yale is the fortress of liberty it claims to be. Sex Week, they said, operates under the assumption that Yalies are having sex and enjoying sex regardless of whether or not there are any emotions attached to it.

Travis Heine ’14 of UBYC said that while Yalies were very open-minded about certain points of view — namely, liberal ones — they were often quick to dismiss conservative perspectives as staunchly traditional.

“It’s wrong of liberal students to assume that their positions are self-evident, and if they hope to call themselves ‘liberal arts’ students, they must be open to the intellectual questioning which must be applied to any nonobvious conclusion,” said Heine.

Could it be true that while Yale attempts to create a progressive environment with events like Sex Week, it is alienating those whose views are on the other end of the spectrum?

University Chaplain Sharon Kugler expressed that within the secularity of Yale, there are students who feel that their religious beliefs are stifled. Despite the Chaplain’s Office’s attempt to create spaces of open and inclusive discourse, she said, there remains a stigma surrounding people of faith on campus.

“Many students tell us that they feel they must check their religious identity at the door. They often feel completely misunderstood, unfairly judged or placed in a certain category that is somehow set aside only for religious people,” Kugler said.

Esolen also mentioned the sometimes-stifling environment of secular institutions.

“My impression of academia as a whole, having been a part of it for my entire adult life,” Esolen observed, “is that there is, practically, a good deal more freedom of speech at the typical college affiliated with a tradition of faith than there is at secular colleges … But in the shadow of Mount Sinai or Calvary, even questions about politics fade into relative insignificance,” he added.

Meanwhile, students in support of the kiss-in argued that rather than infringing on Esolen’s rights, the kiss-in was a demonstration of their own freedom of expression. Students interviewed said that while they were strongly opposed to Esolen’s views on homosexuality, they would not have wanted the school to do anything as extreme as banning him from speaking. With that in mind, they said that the kiss-in was the perfect form of student protest, as it sent a clear message without barring Esolen from expressing his opinion.

“Perhaps this protest was disrespectful — but so was bringing in someone as rabidly homophobic as Esolen,” said Ryan Mendias ’13.

Esolen himself seemed accepting of the students’ method of demonstration. “I was glad that the students did not shout and carry on,” he said.


Although UBYC currently presents itself as an alternative for Sex Week, it began as a movement to ban it. On its website, UBYC presents its central mandate as “Say[ing] ‘No’ to Sex Week at Yale”, and there is a page that details the ways in which Sex Week is harmful to Yale’s sexual climate. While the organizers of both Sex Week and True Love Week spar on the battlefield of their respective events, there remains no avenue for the two sides to directly interact with one another.

“I think we, as a campus, cling to this idea of ‘engagement’ without really understanding what that means,” said Alexandra Brodsky ’12.

When important discussions about religion, freedom and sex are taking place on Facebook instead of on an academic stage, it might be time for Yale to re-evaluate whether its campus encourages free, intellectual discourse as much as it thinks it does.

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