In her letter to the Yale community of Sept. 5, University Secretary Linda Lorimer reiterates a University policy that “it is a violation of University regulations for any member of the faculty, staff or student body to prevent the orderly conduct of a University function or activity — [d]emonstrations or protests which exceed these limits will subject the participants to temporary or permanent separation from the University.”
Given the context of a strike — in which her letter was released — this policy can easily be read as a threat of firing or expulsion for participating in picketing. Lorimer probably did not mean for her letter to make such a threat. Picketing, after all, is constitutionally protected speech. The Supreme Court, in Thornhill v. Alabama (1940) ruled that picketing is generally speech protected against unreasonable government restrictions by the First and 14th amendments to the U.S. Constitution. Later cases placed some limits on picketing — should it be to further an unlawful objective, for example, state courts can prohibit it. But they cannot issue blanket prohibitions against picketing.
More directly, federal law makes clear that Yale cannot discipline employees for participating in peaceful picketing. If staff or graduate student employees choose to peacefully picket on a public sidewalk, breaking no laws, then they are protected by Section 7 of the National Labor Relations Act, which gives employees the right to engage in “concerted activity — for mutual aid and protection.” This includes speech about anything work-related — organizing, representation, or solutions to workplace problems. The doctrine is clear — Yale is prohibited from discharging or “permanently suspending” employees (like staff or graduate teachers and researchers) for speaking out about working conditions, whether or not they have a union.
This is not just about picketing and legally protected speech, however, it’s also about free expression in the context of an academic environment. In the last week, in addition to Lorimer’s letter, there were two incidents in which the University attempted to stifle graduate students’ political speech. A security guard tried to stop a graduate student in the History Department wearing a sign reading “Stand Up for Change at Yale” from entering the Yale Health Plan. Also, American studies students were distributing pro-union literature on Old Campus, when a Yale police officer asked them if they were GESO members, and after hearing an affirmative answer, told them they had to stop. They refused, and the police backed down after consulting their superiors.
With these actions coming barely a year after graduate students were arrested by Yale hospital police for distributing union literature, we are concerned that the administration’s desire to win the labor dispute with its unions is becoming more important than the University’s commitment to, as Lorimer wrote, “preserving the freedom to express one’s views.”
As a university, Yale has a long and valued tradition of the free exchange of ideas. In the United States more broadly, the civil rights movement brought peaceful, although loud and occasionally disruptive, protest squarely within the mainstream of freedom of speech.
While Yale’s regulations, as outlined by Lorimer, could be construed as permitting retaliation against staff and students for political speech, the law, combined with the University’s dedication to the principle of free expression, must stop this from happening.
Andrew Sackett GRD ’98 LAW ’05 is co-chairman of the Yale Law School Workers’ Rights Project.