When we learned that a celebration of Indigenous People’s Day two weeks ago was greeted with chalkings that seemed to compare members of the Association of Native Americans at Yale to “savages” and posters that used derogatory terms like “squaws” and “braves,” we, like ANAAY, were disgusted. On this, we are certain: The slogans addressed toward ANAAY were racist and hateful, and we were angered to see that language directed toward part of our community.
But even as we have no doubt that these statements are reprehensible, we are less certain about the role the University should have in addressing this kind of hateful speech. From their responses so far — Yale College Dean Peter Salovey called the writings “bizarre and disgusting,” while Dean of Student Affairs Betty Trachtenberg said postering the statements anonymously was a “cowardly” act — administrators have made it clear that they share our outrage at the incident. The remaining question, and one that has been raised by some ANAAY members, is whether that outrage is enough.
We recognize the risk of condoning hateful speech by neglecting to address it, but we nonetheless feel the University’s official role in responding to forms of expression the Yale community finds offensive should be limited. To begin with, a proactive official response — for example, a campus-wide e-mail or a University-sponsored forum — runs the risk of unwittingly giving yet another public venue to the very views we find so offensive. Likewise, the University’s response to hateful speech must inevitably be balanced against the need to protect free speech on campus. Yale cannot and should not regulate what people say or write, no matter how ignorant or offensive it may be. Yale College’s Undergraduate Regulations eloquently describes the University’s well-founded position: “If expression may be prevented, censored or punished, because of its content or because of the motives attributed to those who promote it, then it is no longer free. It will be subordinated to other values that we believe to be of lower priority in a university.”
That does not mean, however, that the response to hateful speech should be silence. Yale administrators, like anyone on Yale’s campus, also maintain the right to free expression, and that includes the right to directly criticize bigoted speech on campus. As they have in recent days, administrators should feel free to condemn derogatory statements when confronted with the concerns of community members, even if they express caution in choosing how vocal to be in their criticism. And their commitment to protecting free expression without exception should be matched by a determination to engage with and listen to groups and individuals that feel targeted. To this end, the Minority Advisory Council — if it can maintain a strong presence within Yale and credibility throughout the entire community — can serve as one way of ensuring that those dialogues occur between the University and its students.
But it is important to remember that on the rare occasions when hate speech rears its ugly head on our campus, it is not directed at Yale’s administration. It is directed at the Yale community. And it seems only right that our community, not the administration, take responsibility for addressing it, too.