Last Monday, eight students distributed leaflets to classmates, visitors and faculty for an hour as they passed on their way to lunch or class. A relatively unremarkable story, if not for some of the relevant details — the location, the Woolsey Rotunda, declared off-limits by President Levin; the leaflets, 500 copies of the ones previously seized by Yale police; one student, Alek Felstiner ’04, returning to the rotunda to leaflet after being threatened with arrest the last time.
Something is wrong when wearing a T-shirt emblazoned with the free speech policy of our University becomes an implicit act of protest. Something is wrong when a leaflet from students seeking “to positively redefine how the University works as an educator, as an employer, and as a local citizen,” is seen as a threat to the University’s image. Something is wrong when distributing leaflets in a public space becomes a form of defiance.
Three months ago, President Levin had the opportunity to condemn the use of police threats against two undergraduates peacefully leafleting to visiting parents about Yale’s relationship to workers, students and the city of New Haven. Instead, he used his pulpit as the most powerful member of Yale’s administration, first at a Master’s Tea, then at a Yale College Council Open Forum, and finally over e-mail, to vindicate the actions of the police. Seizing leaflets and threatening arrest was, he asserts, a reasonable enforcement of school policy. In each of these venues he has offered a different source text to forbid leafleting in the Woolsey Rotunda — the Undergraduate Regulations, which make no mention of where leafleting is or is not prohibited; the “Policies on Use of Cross Campus and Hewitt Quadrangle,” which makes no mention of prohibited activity; and the “Rules Governing the Use of Bicentennial Buildings,” a document which, according to the Dean’s Office, does not exist.
Students expect President Levin to live up to the expectations enshrined in our regulations — that he protect and foster an atmosphere of “mutual respect and charitable relations in the Yale community”; that he uphold this University’s Free Speech Policy; that he eschew complicity in the intimidation of students; that he accurately represent official documents. When he broke each of those commitments, 77 of us employed the institutional procedures designed for holding our leaders accountable — first the Dean’s Procedure for Student Complaints, and then the provost’s. Dean Brodhead refused the complaints on the ground that President Levin — despite evidence to the contrary in Yale’s charter and by-laws — is not an administrator of Yale College and thus not covered under the Dean’s Procedure. Former Provost Alison Richard, weeks after receiving the complaints, responded hours before leaving for job with an e-mail flatly declaring that the provost’s procedure “is not an appropriate avenue for the review of a complaint about the President, notwithstanding the language you have pointed out.”
The administration’s carefully-coordinated attempt to brush off this complaint speaks poorly to the state of participatory democracy on this campus. The increasing willingness of this administration to silence, ignore or prosecute the voices of members of this community — be they undergraduates, graduate students, or clerical workers — who publicly challenge official rhetoric on sensitive issues is an affront to all the best values of this University. The message to all those concerned with social justice is all too clear: Protest sweatshop conditions, but not Yale apparel; protest poverty in New Haven, but not the failure of its largest landowner to prevent it; protest the military-industrial complex, but not Yale’s research for the Department of Defense. Protest for workers’ rights, but leave those protests at Phelps Gate.
In November, the president of the University of Newcastle wrote to President Levin to express strong concern over the state of free speech in the Yale community. “Freedom of speech,” Levin replied, “is a fundamental foundation of a great democracy, and a great university, but only if it occurs within the framework of law and civil behavior.” Given that no vacuous exception for “civil behavior” exists in the much stronger free speech policy of this University, it would appear that Levin maintains a different standard for protection of free speech. Perhaps it is Levin’s manufactured “civil behavior” clause that leaves workers leafleting to peers at their place of work about a strike vote, graduate students discussing unionization with other graduate students in a lab, and students leafleting to parents about their vision for a better Yale all beyond the pale. Levin, perhaps, sees these as uncivil activities. Some of us see these as exercises of civil rights. Some of us have a different standard. But it is not a standard this administration appears prepared to enforce.
When President Levin insisted that the arrest of Yale University employees, at an institution where a third of its board is appointed by the University, for leafleting about a strike vote by other Yale University employees was no business of Yale University and refused to condemn the arrests, it took pressure from Mayor John DeStefano Jr. before seven of the eight charges were dropped, and it took the Board of Police Commissioners and Board of Aldermen to recognize that the hospital was abusing the city’s trust. When GESO, as per Levin’s earlier request, brought charges of faculty intimidation first to him, he refused to respond to its letter, forcing GESO to bring its complaints yet again to the National Labor Relations Board. Last Monday, eight students distributed leaflets to classmates, visitors, and faculty for an hour as they passed on their way to lunch or class. We made the Woolsey Rotunda into a free speech zone, for that hour, by using our feet.
It is not too late for Yale’s administration to turn away from its dangerous trend of ignoring or silencing unpopular voices. Condemning recent abridgements of free speech and providing 77 students’ complaints the hearing unequivocally demanded by Yale’s regulations would be a vital step. Otherwise, witnessing that our formal procedures cannot hold accountable the single most powerful member of the Yale community, nor protect the highest values of this University, Yale undergraduates, like others in this community, will need to find other tactics — civil or not — to demand democracy and justice.
Josh Eidelson is a freshman in Jonathan Edwards College.