Monday, a banner hanging from Old Campus’ Durfee Hall that read “Kill ’em all, let God sort ’em out” provided the latest spark to a censorship debate that has swept across campuses in the aftermath of the Sept. 11 attacks. Freshman counselors talked to the students and removed the controversial sign, which its creators later said was a joke.
The incident is certainly not the first time students have come under fire for allegedly propagating hate speech. Last year, freshman counselors and Yale Daily News columnists alike condemned the publication Light & Truth for featuring ugly insects hoisting gay pride signs on its cover. During Gay Pride Week one and a half years ago, the Office of Student Affairs was castigated for failing to punish students who tacked posters across campus likening homosexuality to the seven deadly sins.
Jokes or not, incidents like these raise larger questions about the conduct and openness of the Yale community’s debate on controversial issues. The manner in which such incidents are handled will establish precedents for dealing with similar controversies in the future, especially with divisive issues like the war and union negotiations looming on the horizon.
The gravity of the issues surrounding America’s military engagement in Afghanistan demands an equally serious tone of debate from all parties involved. The greatest strength of universities right now is their ability to promote thoughtful and objective discussion. A resort to farce in the midst of such weighty discussion undermines a pillar of Yale’s scholarly traditions.
But while the students’ means of expression was distasteful, a decision to remove the flag forcefully would also be unquestionably wrong. The students made no direct or credible threats, and no specific people were targeted. Aside from disagreement with the policy decision, no one had a legitimate reason to force the poster’s removal. Threats must not be tolerated, but we must remain objective when setting forth our definitions for what constitutes hate speech, and what is merely a tasteless attempt at humor.
The incident at Yale is not the only example of attempts to quell “offensive” speech on campus communities in the aftermath of the Sept. 11 attacks. Several weeks ago, students swarmed around the office of the University of California at Berkeley’s Daily Californian after the newspaper published a cartoon featuring two bearded men in hell wearing turbans and long robes saying, “We made it to paradise! Now we will meet Allah, and can be fed grapes, and be serviced by 70 virgin women, and –” Ludicrously, they demanded formal retractions and changes in the staff composition in the newspaper.
In a time when Americans are looking for intellectual and moral guidance, the Yale community must be willing to err on the side of tolerance rather than censorship. No easy solutions are to be found in our current conflict, but if our search is to progress, we must continue to promote a serious, open discussion of the issues that define our times.