This has been a week of one-man campaigns — waged diplomatically against the N-word and hysterically against “Harry Potter” — that are cause for at least passing concern among Yalies. While neither mission was persuasive enough to provoke actual censorship, together they provide incentive to pause in the name of free speech. At the very least, we should bask for a moment in the glory of the First Amendment, which guarantees our right to bad words, controversial literature and the occasional run of deeply disturbing public arguments against language and lifestyle.
In the wake of the assault on secularism that was the Board of Alderman’s preliminary vote on same-sex unions last week, there came another uproar that seems startlingly misguided. At a time when many others are worrying about the fate of affirmative action, Ward 23 Alderman Yusuf I. Shah is raising hellfire about what he says is the recent popularization of the word “nigger” in music, speech and writing. In early March, Shah proposed to the Board of Aldermen a resolution urging citizens of New Haven to refrain from using the “N-word” that fell a single vote short of passing. He raised the proposal again with renewed vigor at a press conference Monday. The word itself is profoundly troubling, but the resolution is just profoundly gratuitous. Rather than stopping with a good point — that the word “nigger” carries terrible connotations and should be considered with care and sensitivity — Shah’s proposal dances on the edge of censorship.
All the while, from the school of witchcraft and wizardry, the widely beloved fantasy character Harry Potter has been threatened with expulsion from New Haven public schools for unwittingly teaching local children sorcery. A Fair Haven resident attempted without success to persuade Board of Education officials at a recent meeting to remove the Potter series from school and library shelves. Board president Carlos Torre made the apt distinction between books that depict sorcery and books that instruct it, but granted the proposed ban too much credibility by offering to discuss the issue with concerned citizens. Regarding apparent concern over the effect the books have on children, Torre said this is a matter the board takes “very seriously.”
Meanwhile, at Yale, we face more immediate personal attacks on reason and civility — the prospect of an annual springtime visit from the fire-and-brimstone-gushing Brother Steven and, new this year, a protest scheduled a week from Monday by the folks behind www.godhatesfags.com. The campaigns of the past week may be relatively benign, but they lead to important questions about how we should face greater offenses coming this month. It is possible that taking these cases very seriously dignifies them well beyond what they deserve. It is also possible that ignoring them, as one might just refrain from recognizing an offensive word, encourages bigotry by failing to engage it.
In the end, the decision to react to crude expressions of free speech is a personal one — not something that can be suggested by the Board of Aldermen, the Board of Education, or the board of the News. But it is also a significant one, and it will determine the tone of discussions in the city and on campus for the rest of the school year.