I opened the Yale Daily News one morning to find three opinion columns written by faculty on the possibility of war with Iraq. One, by history professor Glenda Gilmore (“Variations on Iraq,” 10/11), stood out. “Instead of standing up against tyranny,” she wrote, “we are bringing it to our own doorstep. We have met the enemy, and it is us.”
That a professor at an elite university would believe such things, and a tenured one would print them, is nothing new. But when such a professor tries to silence people from criticizing those beliefs, and a university administration indulges her effort, a discussion is worthwhile indeed.
The story began when I nominated Gilmore’s column for www.andrewsullivan.com’s Sontag Award, which Sullivan bestows upon writing that, in the spirit of Susan Sontag, expresses “moral equivalence in the war on terror and visceral anti-Americanism.” I e-mailed Sullivan my nomination and, minutes later, he quoted a few sentences from Gilmore’s column and linked to the News’ Web site.
Gilmore wrote to Sullivan that she was “delighted to accept” the award. Moreover, she thanked Sullivan for “bringing a small part of my essay to a larger audience.” This is what my reaction would have been, too. If I had written a column on an issue I felt strongly about, and a major news outlet picked it up, and thousands of people read it — I would be a very happy writer indeed. It hurts to be criticized, and the Sontag Award is intended to do just that, but the ability to realize the relative value of one’s convictions and yet stand for them unflinchingly, said Joseph Schumpeter, is what distinguishes a civilized person from a barbarian.
Instead of respecting Sullivan’s right to disagree with her, Gilmore insulted him personally. “I cancelled my subscription to The New Republic when you hijacked it,” she wrote, “and I have watched your downwardly mobile career path with interest.” And then she asked this strange question, “Are you a U.S. citizen yet?” This is an odious attempt to delegitimize Sullivan because of his nationality. Why not ask, “Still a Catholic?” Or, perhaps, “Straight yet?”
Tens of thousands of people visit Sullivan’s blog every day, not threatened by his status as a British subject, and many followed the Gilmore link. Hundreds of people wrote responses to the column on the News’ online discussion forum. Most posts were critical of Gilmore’s column; some were hateful and a few obscene. These were removed promptly, consistent with the News’ official policy.
Gilmore wanted more; the ire she showed Sullivan would soon be unleashed upon the First Amendment. Gilmore told colleagues and students that she informed the News that if the paper’s discussion forum was not removed from its Web site, she would consider suing the paper for — presumably, her colleagues are not sure — libel.
It’s true Gilmore was called names on the forum; one poster called her a “slut.” This is deplorable. But should one person’s words shut down an entire forum and silence other voices? Must everything we post be pre-approved? If the answer is yes, then all physical bulletin boards and flyers on campus should be removed promptly and subjected to approval by a Committee for Public Safety, a la the French Revolution, led by, say, Glenda Gilmore.
Yale’s policy on speech is clear. “Shock, hurt, and anger are not consequences to be weighted lightly,” states the Woodward Report, the product of the 1975 Committee on Free Expression, which still defines free speech rights at Yale. But limits on speech “make the majority, or any willful minority, the arbiters of truth for all. If expression may be prevented, censored or punished, because of its content or because of the motives behind it, then it is no longer free.”
Therefore, “every official of the University has a special obligation to foster free expression and to ensure that it is not obstructed.”
This policy is not being enforced. Three different professors told me that History Department Chairman Jon Butler informed the News he was boycotting the paper until the matter was resolved. One might admire Butler’s defense of his faculty, but not when it comes in response to trampling First Amendment rights.
Where is the Yale administration? If they were enforcing University policy, someone would have said no to Gilmore’s thought police. Her colleagues tell me she is still threatening suit, which made them wonder if she had been read Yale’s policy or if administrators were indulging her fit and seeking compromise. Shouldn’t Yale stand up for the independence and freedom of its student newspaper? Or is the University sacrificing its principles for silence? Does Yale care more about good press than free press?
The great irony of this story is that Gilmore holds the C. Vann Woodward chair in history, named after the Yale historian and civil rights activist who, in Gilmore’s words, “defended free speech throughout his life.” Indeed, Woodward chaired the 1975 Committee on Free Expression mentioned above. The flagrant disregard of the Woodward legacy by the holder of the chair that is supposed to continue it is what motivated Woodward’s former colleagues in the History Department to speak with me about this story. In my conversations with these professors, I heard the phrase “turning in his grave” quite a few times.
Robert Brustein, former dean of the Yale School of Drama, wrote that Woodward’s 1975 report “reaffirmed the commitment of the university to the principles of free expression, even when the speaker was offensive to others and the speech defamatory or insulting. It was an important statement about First Amendment rights at Yale, the only embarrassing thing being that anyone should have been required to reaffirm these rights in an institution ostensibly devoted to free inquiry.”
We must reaffirm these rights again. And we must remember that universities do not exist to make us feel good: as the Woodward Report states, the university “cannot make its primary and dominant value the fostering of friendship, solidarity, harmony, civility, or mutual respect.” Yale’s primary value must be the open exchange of ideas. No such exchange is possible when professors, unable to bear dissent, seek to quash it. If the academic community does not stand up to Gilmore, and instead continues to indulge her pretense, the age of the professor-thug shall be upon us.
Davi Bernstein is a senior in Ezra Stiles College. His column appears regularly on alternate Mondays.