The Yale administrators and Morse freshman counselors who illegitimately removed an ethnically “offensive” banner from Durfee Hall on Monday and the administrators who urged them to (“Hate sign removed from Durfee Hall,” 10/30) have no place at Yale College.
Far from the Soviet-style censorship and invasion of privacy that occurred on Monday, a liberal university as great as Yale ought to respect and encourage the free expression of even the most abhorrent and deviant ideas, regardless of how politically incorrect, offensive or hateful they may be.
But instead, Dean of Student Affairs Betty Trachtenberg indicated that further action may be forthcoming from the administration.
Such irresponsible statements create a chilling effect that undermines the expression of any ideas that could potentially be interpreted as offensive or hateful to minorities. The threat of administrative sanctions will dissuade Yale students from exercising their right to free expression precisely when it matters the most — that is, when individuals have unorthodox ideas to share with the community.
I need not emphasize that administrators patently violated Yale College’s official policy on free expression, as featured in Undergraduate Regulations, Chapter II, which quotes C. Vann Woodward’s eloquent declaration of the centrality of free expression at Yale. The policy explicitly demands, “Every official of the university, moreover, has a special obligation to foster free expression and to ensure that it is not obstructed.”
But let us temporarily ignore the University’s policy on free expression and forgive the freshman counselors for breaching their duties to uphold rights guaranteed to students by the Undergraduate Regulations.
As members of a liberal university, they nevertheless ought to respect the free expression of unorthodox and offensive ideas for three reasons.
First, we ought to have the humility to recognize that our views are not so infallible as to grant us a right to silence the opinions of others. Here, the “hateful” views expressed were intended as a parody and probably reflected views shared by many of us.
Second, the censorship of offensive ideas curtails dialogue and the rigorous exploration of diverse views at Yale. As Woodward noted in the Yale policy, “Whoever deprives another of the right to state unpopular views necessarily also deprives others of the right to listen to those views.”
Finally, even if the offensive opinions of others are entirely flawed, we still ought to permit their expression. As John Stuart Mill explained, a free and open dialogue allows us to truly understand the veracity of our own views by contrasting them against the errors of others.
As much as race-baiting ethnic counselors such as Edward Teng would like to indoctrinate impressionable freshmen with specious theories that justify censorship in order to prevent hostile environments, they ought to first realize that Yale is an institution that celebrates and protects intellectual diversity. Those who cannot handle the privileges, responsibilities and discomforts of free expression and academic freedom should have chosen other universities.
Throughout this entire embarrassing affair, those administrators who have not defended free speech are themselves most worthy of censorship by virtue of their apparent ignorance of Yale’s explicit promises of academic freedom and free expression. Trachtenberg is free to publicly disagree with Yale’s policy on free expression but should be absolutely prohibited from misusing her administrative authorities to quell offensive speech.
Let me give some advice to all Yale administrators on how to avoid abusing your authority in the future. The next time you find yourself wanting to censor a hotheaded freshman, just ask yourself: Was there an actual violation of the Undergraduate Regulations, or am I just trying to prevent the expression of certain ideas I find offensive? If it’s the latter, than keep your mouth shut and your nose to yourself, unless you have something substantive to say about the content of the offensive expression.
The cherished memory of C. Vann Woodward and the prominence of Yale as an institution of intellectual pluralism would demand nothing less.
Jowei Chen is a sophomore in Timothy Dwight College.