I quite agree with Davi Bernstein’s argument (“Yale professors doubling as thought-police,” 12/2) that professor Glenda Gilmore’s threatening to sue the Yale Daily News for libel is both dangerous in its implications and dubious in its legality. I would also point out that Gilmore is under no obligation to read the postings on the Yale Daily News Web site, so the argument that she is somehow being subjected to abuse that she has no protection against rings, to say the least, hollow.
However, I fear that Bernstein lets his rhetoric outrun his argument when he trots out that old war-horse, the First Amendment. No one’s First Amendment rights are, in my reading, at stake here.
The First Amendment guards against governmental attempts to curb and control speech. However, the Yale Daily News is under no obligation to let people express themselves in its pages or on its Web site, and could deny people such opportunities — by, say, closing down the discussion board — without constitutional rights being at all affected. Nor is this even a matter of academic freedom, as it has been traditionally understood, unless the University seeks to force the News to close down the discussion board.
I fear that Bernstein, like Gilmore, though to a lesser and less damaging extent, has fallen into the habit, so common in our society, of appealing to legal principles when confronted with something that causes moral distress.
This is only natural, but also dangerous, in a liberal society. I use the terms liberal and liberalism here with their old-fashioned and European meaning, and not as the partisan epithet they’ve become in contemporary America. Liberalism rests on the distinction between private and public spheres; it is also motivated by a concern for the rights, the liberty and legal equality, of individuals.
The problem comes when these two commitments come into conflict: when some individuals seek to violate the rights of others within the private sphere. The natural liberal response is to want to intervene, to set things right; but to do so means expanding the power of the government in such a way as to violate the private sphere which liberalism traditionally seeks to keep inviolate.
There is no hard and fast rule to determine whether such intervention is proper across the board; one must decide each case based on its merits. Certainly, I don’t think Gilmore is right to try to bring the law to bear in this case; it is far from clear that she has any standing, and to seek to burden a student publication with legal costs — if that is what she is proposing to do — seems rather mean.
On the other hand, the Yale Daily News as a student publication should be independent of control by the government and the University, so long as it acts responsibly (that is, refrains from printing falsehoods, either deliberately or in good faith). It should not be forced by anyone to stifle debate within its pages (including Web pages); but nor should it be dictated to about what it must allow to be printed.
We, in turn, have a right to think and speak as we like. But we don’t have a right to demand that these views be broadcast by the Yale Daily News; nor do we have a right to seek to silence criticism, however vulgar and stupid, if our speech should be unpopular.
Joshua Cherniss ’02 is a graduate student in modern history at Balliol College, Oxford.