To the Editor:
When things don’t go your way, stomp your feet, pout, and make a nuisance of yourself. A group of Yale students demonstrated their proficiency in those childish skills last Wednesday when they staged a “die-in” during a talk given by Coca-Cola Chairman and CEO Douglas Daft.
Granted, the right to protest Daft is undeniable. I have no personal opinion on the labor practices of his corporation; those practices may very well be, as the protesters suggested, unfair and even inhumane. That does not change the questionableness of the protest’s method.
Disrupting and mocking a speech given by an invited guest is not only rude and juvenile, it is, as a philosophy of dissent, self-referentially inconsistent. Peaceful protesters rely fundamentally on the right to express themselves and not to have their free speech repressed. By disturbing a speech, and deliberately attempting to make the speaker feel uncomfortable, they impinge on the speaker’s very same right to free speech, as well as the right of more mature audience members to listen.
There is only a difference in degrees of discouraging controversial speech through threats and in making a speaker uncomfortable. Both have the same objective: suppression of the spoken word. Even if the group has no regard for Daft’s rights, consider the student who wanted to approach Daft in a reception following the speech, but did not have the opportunity because the protesters made a point of peppering the CEO with questions and making him uncomfortable enough that he left early. Was it their right to deny other students the opportunity to converse with an important figure, however much they may have disliked his corporation’s practices?
Of course, no one expects the audience at a controversial speech to leave silently nodding their heads in agreement. That’s why there are question and answer periods. I would freely encourage those participants in the “die-in” to have calmly confronted Daft with his company’s alleged labor indiscretions during that designated time. In fact, Daft, to his credit, offered to answer questions concerning the demonstration after the speech; a clear indication that he would not cowardly duck questions, despite the below-the-belt tactics used by the protesters.
Even demonstrating with a banner outside of the venue — not inside during the speech — would have been a respectable course of action. Or dissenters might have printed an editorial in this very newspaper.
Instead, the protesters deprived Daft of his right to speak freely and answer the tough questions after. To those who participated: don’t insult anyone’s intelligence by suggesting that the protest was not designed to interrupt the speech. To propose that someone could continue speaking, oblivious to students walking to the podium, stripping to blood-stained shirts, and feigning death mere feet from the speaker, while others distributed leaflets throughout the audience and unrolled two large banners, can mean only one of two things: you have never given a public speech before, or you really do think stomping your feet and pouting is the best form of protest.
I urge those involved in Wednesday’s protest to offer an apology to Daft and those who wanted to listen to him. Don’t apologize for disagreeing, you had every right to — but the action you took to express that disagreement demands contrition.
Alex Hetherington ’06
April 4, 2004
The writer is a staff reporter for the Yale Daily News.