The first Yale publication I ever read was Rumpus. It was Bulldog Days, and I was shocked that Yale would condone the distribution of a tabloid featuring nude and imbibing students on the front page, and much worse inside. Beyond shocked, I was impressed. Rumpus is a testament to Yale’s commitment to free speech — even when that speech blatantly denigrates Yale students and, by association, Yale’s name. To let Rumpus reveal (and invent) the seediest and most perverse campus goings-on is to take a risk on unbridled expression.
Yale makes its commitment to free expression very clear. The Undergraduate Regulations not only set guidelines for students, but for Yale as an institution. Chapter two includes the brilliant 1975 Report of the Committee on Freedom of Expression at Yale (informally known as the Woodward Report) which states, “Above all, every member of the University has an obligation to permit free expression in the University … It may sometimes be necessary in a university for civility and mutual respect to be superseded by the need to guarantee free expression.”
But other than campus gossip, what does free expression actually provide? The answer is less apparent than it first seems. Certainly activism at Yale during the ’60s helped rid us of the “Old Blue” attitude, ushering in women and gender and ethnicity studies departments. Today, freedom of expression ensures that students can protest Yale’s investment decisions.
Still, while activism has accomplished much, at an institution like Yale it has serious limits. It is not enough to provide the space for free speech; Yale also must actively encourage discourse by funding student groups, even — and especially — those that challenge the University.
In our society we often view free speech as a constraint against the powerful. It is, in its passive sense, exactly that. But in a community like ours, free speech requires an active component, too: encouragement and support by the institution. It is important for Yale to do more than just restrain itself — it should seek out its own critique.
Yale has always been wary of funding undergraduate-led social justice groups. Many of these groups work with local communities and help unionize workers. Social justice groups were particularly active in a recent effort to unionize workers at Yale-New Haven Hospital.
It’s understandable that Yale isn’t rushing to fund student groups that fight to change its policies. Their goals, such as the unionization of Yale employees, are often opposed to the University’s corporate interests. At the same time, the University has a broad (and admittedly vague) responsibility to promote a good and just society. Social justice groups on campus provide an important opposing voice to the Yale Corporation. But their voice is constantly threatened. Without proper resources, these groups can’t function.
Of course, no undergraduate group has an intrinsic right to money. The “Hang Out and Eat Pizza” group certainly doesn’t deserve a line in the budget. And no group can demand one. But Yale’s greater social responsibility should inspire it to fund groups devoted to social justice. In so doing, the University would not only passively allow free speech, but actively encourage it. It should not only allow students to question its motives, but encourage them to do so.
Free expression ensures that groups will be able to speak on campus, but it doesn’t ensure their funding. Yale has no explicit responsibility to promote social justice. Money, however, is speech. And restricting funding is equivalent to restricting speech. As this applies to Yale, restricting groups’ access to money means restricting their free expression.
Active free expression should include both protection from censure and encouragement of criticism. Yale should promote internal tension and debate, and it should do so by using its own resources to fund groups that work against it. Internal disagreement spurs progress.
Tyler Ibbotson-Sindelar is a senior in Branford College.